In the operas of Monteverdi and Gluck, Orpheus, poet and musician, is a tragic hero. He loses his wife Eurydice twice, first when she dies on earth, and again on their way out of Hades, where he descends to revive her. In Stefano Landi’s La morte d’Orfeo (ca 1619), he is a less sympathetic, but more interesting figure. Landi picks up the story after Orfeo returns from the underworld. Wallowing in his grief and misogynistically bitter, he rejects all women who are not Euridice. For this offence Bacco sends the maenads to tear him to shreds. Back in Hades, Orfeo sees Euridice again, but she has forgotten all about him. In the end he is transformed into a constellation in the sky.

Perceived to be the first secular opera in the Roman style, La morte d’Orfeo has a cast of no less than twenty-one characters. The surfeit of gods, demigods and allegorical figures, plus choral gatherings of deities, satyrs and shepherds, would challenge any stage director. Although the plot has a clear dramatic arc, with Orfeo’s murder as its climax, it progresses haltingly, in a series of episodes that constantly introduce new figures. Pierre Audi overcame these dramaturgical hurdles by simplifying the character list and concentrating on one theme, the battle between the Apollonian forces of the intellect and the Dionysian lure of the senses. Ten soloists, all brimming with expressive energy, sang multiple roles as well as the choruses, performing the work without a break. Nearing the end of his 30-year artistic directorship at Dutch National Opera, Audi has collaborated on this project with conductor Christophe Rousset, as he did in his early years on Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea.

Rousset’s meticulous conducting of Les Talens Lyriques and their characteristic mellow timbre made a persuasive case for this little-known work. Strings, harp, harpsichord and organ created a varied continuo texture. Rousset left the original score unchanged, adding only a couple of ritornellos from Landi’s later opera Il Sant’Alessio, a common custom in the composer’s time. The glory of the work are the polyphonic ensembles. They include a rapidly warbling trio of breezes, a gnashing chorus of murderous maenads and a final, stunning ensemble celebrating the apotheosis of Orfeo. A long scene during which Orfeo’s brother Fileno recounts his death to their mother Calliope is the purest form of early opera in recitative style. Baritone Renato Dolcini as Fileno seized this moment to deliver an emotionally powerful narrative. The rest of the cast shared his lucid diction and stylistic grasp, charging Landi’s liberal word painting with dramatic bite. The superior ensemble singing alone would have made the evening worthwhile, but the coherent staging made it complete.

On a plain black and copper-coloured set, Robby Duiveman’s costumes, mostly modern with mythical references, clearly indicated who was who, or at least to which faction they belonged. The Apollonians wore shiny, expensive clothes while the goatish followers of Bacco had horns and matted hair. Tenor Juan Francisco Gatell, appealing of voice and dressed like one of The Beatles, played Orfeo as a pop star who spent much of his time in a drugged haze. The excellent Emiliano Gonzalez Toro was his father Apolline. As the god of music and poetry he was, of course, an even bigger pop icon than his son. While Apolline counselled virtue and restraint to his depressed son, the athletic Bacco of Kacper Szelążek tried to lead him astray with his imperative countertenor, to no avail ­– Orfeo resisted all attempts at seduction by the lovely-voiced groupies. The personification of Ebro, a river in Orfeo’s native Thrace, became his manager, smooth bass-baritone Alexander Miminoshvili in a silk dressing gown. Another amusing portrayal was that of Hades ferryman Caronte, vividly sung by bass Salvo Vitale as a testy psychiatrist with an obstinate patient. Anyone who heard the lustrous mezzo-soprano Cecilia Molinari as Euridice would have forgiven Orfeo for not making any progress in therapy. Caronte, however, forced him to drink the waters of the river Lethe to make him forget her once and for all, administering this drastic medication with a catchy drinking song.

In the final Act the dead Orfeo is immortalised in the starry pantheon. For the ceremony Gatell wore a dazzling suit encrusted with mirrors. The golden wreath Apolline placed on his head looked like a crown of thorns. With arms outstretched, he was a Christ-like figure, but stiff and hollowed out. Did he sacrifice too much for his art? And did he lose something essentially human when he joined the rational gods, forsaking carnality? The Orphic myth never ceases to prompt questions. Although not an absolute masterpiece, Landi’s opera is a fascinating treatment of the subject and, performed to these high standards, a musical indulgence.