There’s something pretty special about going to see one of the very first operas ever written. It’s particularly special if you love the rhythms of renaissance dance music, the harmonies of polyphonic choral music and if, as I am, you are an admirer of Claudio Monteverdi’s vocal writing: it’s quite plausible to argue that he remains unmatched in his ability to spin a beautiful vocal thread and weave it around the emotions of a text.

Belén Barnaus as Euridice and René Bloice-Sanders as Orfeo © Laurent Campagnon
Belén Barnaus as Euridice and René Bloice-Sanders as Orfeo
© Laurent Campagnon

Of course, opera has moved on more than somewhat in the four centuries since Monteverdi wrote L’Orfeo, so you have to make certain allowances. There isn’t much in the way of theatrical action and there certainly aren’t any dramatic surprises - after all, we all know the Orpheus and Eurydice story, and Monteverdi wasn’t going to mess with it. Rather, the opera proceeds a series of tableaux and set pieces in which musicians and singers use their art to enlighten us about the feelings of the characters.

In Hampstead Garden Opera’s production, at Upstairs at the Gatehouse, the quality of the said musicians and singers was very good indeed. Music came from the harpsichord of HGO’s usual music director Oliver-John Ruthven plus a group of ten period instrumentalists, who produced a wonderfully evocative sound. From the first notes of the opera’s opening toccata, the excitement generated was palpable, and if you’ve never heard early opera performed with this kind of instrumentation - theorbo, viola da gamba, chamber organ, recorders and so on - it’s an experience worth going for, with a sound totally different from modern instruments. You have to put up with occasional tuning fluffs: playing early instruments in a pub theatre of variable temperature is a serious tuning nightmare for the performers, who coped manfully.

The two principal singers, Belén Barnaus as Euridice and René Bloice-Sanders, were both excellent. Barnaus sang clearly, firmly, thoroughly in tune and with elegant phrasing. She also sang the personification of Music, who opens the story: she looked, moved and sang beautifully, getting proceedings off to a glorious start. Bloice-Sanders also displayed lovely tone and power as well as exploiting the opportunities that Monteverdi gave for singers to syncopate rhythm and play with phrasing (a freedom that would soon disappear from music, to reappear only in the jazz age). I particularly loved Orfeo's lament towards the end of the opera: it’s a passage that could turn into a self-pitying whinge, but Bloice-Sanders sang it with power and dignity.

The opera isn’t entirely devoid of drama: I was particularly grabbed by the passage when Hope has accompanied Orfeo down as far as the desolate edge of the underworld. Hope has clearly read her Dante and explains to Orfeo that all who enter here must now abandon Hope; Orfeo’s despair and ensuing fortitude in the face of the challenge from Charon (creditably sung by Ian Helm) were rendered superbly. Another fine moment was Orfeo’s complaint at Echo, who appears to offer consolation but can only replay the last few words of each phrase.

Director Matthew Eberhardt’s setting is straightforward and broadly effective. A set based on shaped white blocks provides visual interest, and chorus numbers were well choreographed so that there was plenty of movement to interest you without overly distracting you from the main characters. I was less sure about the depiction of hell as a dodgy night club inhabited by people mainly clad in leather and fishnet stockings, but maybe that’s Eberhardt’s view of night clubs. And the choruses were quite glorious: the dozen or so singers were all strong, and the interweaving of several different melodies, each sung so powerfully, produced an effect that transported me blissfully.

Inasmuch as L’Orfeo does carry a message, it’s one that’s rooted in hard line theology: the highest virtues are unquestioning faith in what God tells you and the suppression of one’s human passions in service of such faith. This, the lack of dramatic motion and the very specific musical language of the renaissance mean that L’Orfeo won’t be an opera for everyone. But if none of this worries you, and especially if you enjoy renaissance music or are interested in operatic history, this is a must-see: Hampstead Garden Opera put on a superb performance.