“It is the privilege of legends to be timeless.” Simon Rees’ fine introduction to Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice in the Buxton Festival programme opens with this Jean Cocteau quotation to the film Orphée (1950). Any updating of the Orpheus legend naturally gives directors license to depict him as a pop star. Director Stephen Medcalf opts for this route, having Orfeo as an ageing rocker: grey-bearded and white-suited – every inch a Bee-Gees tribute act. Focused on his adoring groupies, Orfeo seems far more in love with fame and fortune than with Eurydice. During the overture, we see Orfeo post-performance, beneath giant letters spelling out his name, repeatedly ignoring Eurydice, who consequently takes her own life. The letters descend to the stage and effectively form the set, manoeuvred by the 16-strong chorus, for the drama to come.

Michael Chance (Orfeo) © Robert Workman
Michael Chance (Orfeo)
© Robert Workman

Medcalf’s Orfeo was aged by necessity – Michael Chance is now 59 years old and hasn’t been seen on the major opera circuit in this country for decades. Alas, this was demonstrated by his performance, which was a vocal car crash in slow motion. His intonation was shaky throughout and his lower notes sounded parched, forcing him to squawk into baritone register. Chance still has power in his upper reaches, but this wasn't a successful performance. “Che farò senza Eurydice” – Gluck’s ‘hit’ number – was poorly sung, at a dragging tempo. Stuart Stratford conducted a gently paced account of the score, drawing warm playing from the Northern Chamber Orchestra, if lacking in bite for the scene with the Furies.

Eurydice gets very little of the vocal limelight, but Barbara Bargnesi impressed in “Che fiero momento” and expressed her character’s frustration (and exasperation) vividly. The problem with the production was that one never felt convinced that Orfeo’s relationship with Eurydice was genuine to begin with, making his descent into the Underworld half-hearted.

Daisy Brown (Amore) and Barbara Bargnesi (Eurydice) © Robert Workman
Daisy Brown (Amore) and Barbara Bargnesi (Eurydice)
© Robert Workman

Daisy Brown was a fabulous Amore – a sassy, sexy Cupid who emerges from the chorus as one of Orfeo’s groupies, offering herself on a plate during the overture. This gives Amore something of an ambiguous role in Medcalf’s drama. Amore gives Eurydice the kiss of life, but that kiss seems to ignite more than she’d bargained for. At the end of the opera, it’s not at all clear that Orfeo and Eurydice are going to live happily ever after – they both seem far more interested in Amore than in rekindling their marriage. Brown constantly impressed and she sang “Gli sguardi trattieni” with light, bright tone, whilst merrily scattering Eurydice’s ashes from the urn.

The chorus forms a crucially important character in the drama and Medcalf directs them well, for the most part. The groupies of the overture don winter coats and hats to become homeless Furies in Act II. Blue skies depict the Elysian fields, beneath which the chorus strips to a variety of beachwear – all shades and dodgy Hawaiian shirts. The letter O doubles as a jacuzzi as the Chorus soaks up the sun and smokes wacky backy – a trippy Elysium indeed. Medcalf had them tease and torment Orfeo, subjecting him to a cruel game of blind man’s buff in which Eurydice is complicit – but for what reason?

Once returned from the Underworld, Team Orfeo celebrated with a lamely choreographed dance number. Then, a vowel and a consonant added to the set allowed the chorus to spell out a number of words wittily, ending with AMORE.

It is disappointing that this inventive, but variable production is the UK’s major Gluck offering in his 300th anniversary year. If the final scene resembled a supersized game of TV’s Countdown, Chance’s engagement as Orfeo remains a considerable conundrum.