Love and loss are the bread and butter of opera, starting with its earliest works, as Claudio Monteverdi’s 1607 masterpiece can attest to; its entire plot revolves around Orfeo losing his beloved Euridice twice — the first time through bad luck and the second because of his inability to control himself. Despite being one of opera’s very first children, L’Orfeo’s basic concerns are relevant and relatable today. This modernity is what marks Tom Morris’ new production at the Wiener Staatsoper, one of the most richly aesthetic productions to ever grace the Haus am Ring. 

Georg Nigl (Orfeo) and ensemble
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn

The production is geared to relatability from the get-go. Taking a page out of the interactive theater playbook, the evening opens without a curtain, the opera house styled as the setting for Orfeo and Euridice’s wedding. Cast members hang out in the Parterre, greeting audience members before making their way to the stage. Conductor Pablo Heras-Casado is paraded in by the drum corps, which gives way to the signature trumpet fanfare, played from the stage which then bleeds seamlessly into a ritornello prologue. The costumes and stage design (Anna Fleischle) are absolute genius, both elaborate and loads of fun. Each draws on a regional look, which is elevated and modernized to a point approaching couture. Pagan headdresses are paired to match the nature-focused aesthetic of the stage design and character of the wedding. 

© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn

Cunning use of a video screen (Nina Dunn) at the back of the stage offers a great deal of atmosphere without seeming distracting or extraneous. Everything is dancing (choreography/movement: by Jane Gibson and Callum Hastie), joy and colorful sensuality — until suddenly things go very wrong. After Euridice’s instant death, the stage raises, revealing an underworld with real The Upside Down energy; roots hang overhead, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here” is scrawled, serial-killer style on the back screen, and all the characters slowly return, darkened versions of themselves. 

Slávka Zámečníková (Euridice) and Georg Nigl (Orfeo)
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn

The innovation extends to playing with the libretto — La musica's opening monologue, directed to the audience, is sung in a mixture of English and German, although it was a bit disappointing that this novelty was so short-lived and never reiterated. The rest of the piece was strictly in Italian, but provoked us to consider what an interesting evening it would have been had every character continued to sing in whatever languages they felt most comfortable in. We all, after all, have access to subtitles.

Slávka Zámečníková (Euridice)
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn

In terms of Personenregie, every member of the extensive ensemble was energized, from the chorus to the dance corps to the wealth of minor characters. Concentus Musicus Wien was on beautiful form under Pablo Heras-Casado, and showed off their fabulous virtuosity and strength of interpretation, the “Mighty spirit” scene a particular highlight. In general, the singing cast was also strong if slightly uneven. The trio of women flanking the protagonist was brilliant; Slávka Zámečníková’s graceful movements were paired with an angelically molded soprano which I cannot wait to hear more of, and Christina Bock was an expressive Proserpina / Messenger. 

Kate Lindsey (La musica)
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn

Superlatives fly with Kate Lindsey, who is not only a dream vocally, but possesses stage presence to burn. The even quality to her voice in all registers, the grace and sophistication with which she handled phrasing, her gorgeous pianissimi and her tasteful use of straight tone and Baroque ornamentation set her — in the triple role of La musica / La speranza / Eco — is a stark contrast to the unruly protagonist, Orfeo (Georg Nigl). He had lovely moments when softly mourning, such as at the touching opening of “Thou art dead, my life", but came across as haplessly unpredictable in anything above a mezzo-forte. Pluto (Andrea Mastroni), Ninfa (Antigoni Chalkia) and Apollo (Hiroshi Amako) were all stand-outs in the ensemble.

Andrea Mastoni (Plutone) and Christina Bock (Proserpina)
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn

It was wonderful to see such a strong production play to a packed house that feels like it is getting its groove back after the past two years. We can only hope that the color and joy of this season does not turn on a dime, like Orfeo and Euridice’s fortunes, as fall approaches — we certainly have had enough of the Upside Down.