Venice, 1644. It’s carnival time – the last chance to let your hair down (before the church comes down on you with the strictures of Lent) and to be irreverent, risqué and generally naughty. Francesco Cavalli’s mission is to make his audience laugh, wow them with a bit of vocal gymnastics, butter up their romantic feelings with a few delicate cadences, and maybe leave a tear or two in their eye. It’s a potent formula, and in bringing Cavalli’s L’Ormindo to a modern stage (the production is now in its second year), director Kaspar Holten was figuring that there’s no reason why the formula shouldn’t still work today.

© Stephen Cummiskey | ROH
© Stephen Cummiskey | ROH

And he’s right. What Holten and the Royal Opera have created, in the intimate candlelit surroundings of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe, is a production like nothing else currently on the opera stage. More than anything, it works as a piece of theatre: the cast are as focused on acting as they are on singing and conductor Christian Curnyn must have drilled them mercilessly on the subject of diction. The small performance space helps, no doubt, but I haven’t ever heard such clarity from opera singers while still succeeding in projecting full operatic legato.

This is an opera of which most of the music needs to be kept fresh, airy and upbeat. It’s difficult to keep that up for over two hours without letting it all go a bit manic, but Curnyn does an admirable job of getting the balance right, moving everything along nicely while still letting the melodies breathe. Curnyn is helped by having some great musicians in his small ensemble, most notably Elizabeth Kenny whose theorbo and guitar playing would be worth the ticket price in itself.

The slower, lyrical passages, when they come, provide a neat contrast and can be genuinely cathartic. The pick of the ladies was Joélle Harvey, whose “Perfidissima Armida” was affecting and brought a lump to the throat even though placed in between two scenes of riotous comedy. Each of the cast double as one or more divine beings: one of the delights of the opera is that all the divinities and the minor characters are uncompromisingly irreverent to our heroes and heroines – Harvey switches to the cheekiness of “Lady Luck” with gusto.

Joélle Harvey (La Fortuna) © Stephen Cummiskey | ROH
Joélle Harvey (La Fortuna)
© Stephen Cummiskey | ROH

Susanna Hurrell delivers fine comic acting and sweet singing as Erisbe, but her best vocal moment comes at the very beginning when, in the guise of the spirit of Music, she is flown down from the ceiling, preceded by a seemingly unending white dress, to deliver some deliciously tongue-in-cheek coloratura in which the high notes are hit bang in the middle.

Anja Vang Kragh’s costumes are sumptuous and witty, from Love dressed in red lipstick, tutu and carrying a white cane (Love is blind, after all) through to Harry Nicoll’s outrageous “gypsy” drag queen outfit through to the promiscuous Erisbe, whose flowing renaissance gown comes with built-in bed (I'm not sure I'm able to describe that quite right – it kind of has to be seen).

Ed Lyon and Samuel Boden have nicely contrasting voices as the two princes who discover that Erisbe is sharing her favours with both of them, Boden clear and urgent, Lyon darker and fuller. Graeme Broadbent has a bass voice that’s darker still and very smooth in his arias. What's evident is that the removal of the requirement for voices to fill Covent Garden enables these young singers to sing with a much broader timbral range than usual and have enough headspace left to focus on their acting.

And, indeed, the whole of the cast act their socks off: the visual gags come thick and fast, and they make full use of the intimacy of the performance space. I don’t suppose that the gentleman in the audience onto whose lap Rachel Kelly installed herself, clad in flowing, deeply slashed golden gown and singing pertly about how you’re not going to catch her marrying an old man, is going to forget the experience in a hurry.

Ed Lyon (Amidas) and Susannah Hurrell (Erisbe) © Stephen Cummiskey | ROH
Ed Lyon (Amidas) and Susannah Hurrell (Erisbe)
© Stephen Cummiskey | ROH

If  I have to admit to a reservation about this production, it’s that the underlying score of L’Ormindo is in no way memorable. Unlike (say) Monteverdi, I’ve not come out with a single tune in my head or any memory of being wowed by an individual segment of music. But after a piece of theatre of this quality, I simply don't care.

Richard Wagner coined the term gesamtkunstwerk to mean “a unified work of art”, an all-embracing fusion of music, drama and the visual arts. If the performances of L’Ormindo in Cavalli’s day came even close to what Holten, the Royal Opera and the Globe have achieved with this production, then I'd say Wagner was scooped by about two hundred years. I’ve just bought two of the last few remaining tickets to see it again!