The more opera I review, the less likely it becomes that I'm going to see a totally new approach. And I certainly wouldn't have expected one from the oldest work in the repertoire: Monteverdi's L'Orfeo, four centuries old and counting. But a new approach was exactly what I saw last night in the collaboration between the Royal Opera and the Roundhouse.

Gyula Orendt (Orfeo) and Mary Bevan (Eurydice) © Stephen Cummiskey | ROH/Roundhouse
Gyula Orendt (Orfeo) and Mary Bevan (Eurydice)
© Stephen Cummiskey | ROH/Roundhouse

The idea is this: L'Orfeo is contemporary with Shakespeare's later plays, and thus can be directed in the vein of modern Shakespeare productions (by former RSC Artistic Director Michael Boyd) in a space more like a Shakespearean stage than an opera house (the Roundhouse) using a translation which sounds like a somewhat modernised version of Shakespearean verse (Don Paterson). Use musicians with serious period instrument credentials, throw into the mix some community project work, use young, attractive singers who are able to do some pretty extreme choreography and stage movement, and you get a result which is totally unlike any opera production I've seen before.

This production also killed one particular sacred cow, namely that you can't mike opera without wrecking it. There was amplification, but I didn't hear a single adverse artifact as a result. The effect was merely that voices didn't disappear when singers were facing away from me (the Roundhouse, to state the obvious, is round, so this happens quite a lot).  If I hadn't been told before the performance that amplification was in use, I might easily have missed it, unless I'd been paying attention and realising that the singers weren't straining as hard as usual so that diction was exceptionally clear. Surtitles were provided, but they were only really needed in the ensemble pieces.

Mary Bevan (Eurydice) and Gyula Orendt (Orfeo) © Stephen Cummiskey | ROH/Roundhouse
Mary Bevan (Eurydice) and Gyula Orendt (Orfeo)
© Stephen Cummiskey | ROH/Roundhouse

In the title role, Gyula Orendt had by far the largest part, which he sang in an attractive and lyrical baritone: his voice had a lightness and clarity that I'd more often associate with a tenor. His "Possente spirto" in Act III was every bit the vocal highlight of the evening that it deserves to be. Mary Bevan sang expressively as La Musica and Euridice; both she and Orendt succeeding in delivering excellent vocal performances while being thrown or hoisted around the stage a great deal. Amongst a considerable ensemble cast, James Platt and Susan Bickley both showed smooth voices with a bit of extra strength and depth, Platt as the implacable boatman Charon and Bickley as Silvia, the nymph who bears bad news.

Rachel Kelly (Proserpina) and Callum Thorpe (Pluto) © Stephen Cummiskey | ROH/Roundhouse
Rachel Kelly (Proserpina) and Callum Thorpe (Pluto)
© Stephen Cummiskey | ROH/Roundhouse
Boyd's staging is in modern dress, but there is no attempt to transport us to some particular time or place. Rather than a single overarching directorial concept, there are various visual cues which indicate Boyd's thinking. Two examples: there is an indication of the nature of early opera as court entertainment, as Acts I and II are presided over by Pluto and Proserpina from a high gallery. L'Orfeo appeared at the height of the counter-reformation, and there is a distinctly threatening religious feel imparted by various cast members in clerical robes – the shepherds ("pastore" in Italian) become religious "pastors" in this production.

There is much to keep one's eyes busy: East London Dance provide plenty of acrobatics in their modern dance moves and use their bodies to create waves of movement. The whole cast's movement around the stage is highly stylised and choreographed.

The instrumental performance, conducted by Christopher Moulds, was solid rather than revelatory. There was a fine sense of pace and balance, and the timbre of the period instruments consistently evocative. The highlight, for me, was the passage in Act III in which a lamenting Orfeo is accompanied by solo harp (Siobhán Armstrong) and a few simple organ notes. A criticism would be that some passages felt a little rushed: keeping tempi brisk is fine most of the time, but I would have preferred some of the laments and the ceremonial marches to have been given a bit more air.

Gyula Orendt (Orfeo) and Mary Bevan (Eurydice) © Stephen Cummiskey | ROH/Roundhouse
Gyula Orendt (Orfeo) and Mary Bevan (Eurydice)
© Stephen Cummiskey | ROH/Roundhouse

On the evidence of a number of empty seats after the interval and some decidedly mixed comments on the Twitter feed,  this production isn't for everyone. I can think of several reasons why one might take against it: lack of any particular liking of Monteverdi's music, hoping for some kind of transformation of what is basically a court entertainment into something less visual and more dramatic, or just not gelling with the choreography. I'm sure there are others. But for me , the evening worked wonderfully. It helps that I start out loving the music, so any high quality performance was going to be welcome, but I was genuinely bowled over by the visual inventiveness of the production. And while I'm usually a purist in terms of wanting to hear Italian opera in Italian, I thoroughly enjoyed Paterson's translation and the Shakespearean feel that was imparted to the whole evening. As a totally new take on an old opera, this was an outstanding success.

****1