Before the curtain went up on the Royal Opera’s season opener, you could tell that things weren’t normal: the orchestra pit covered by a burnished metal cover looking not unlike a giant kitchen worktop. When the curtain went up to reveal Juan Diego Flórez slumped in an armchair with a full Baroque orchestra seated behind him on a platform which gradually levitated upwards on 24 large square columns, it was clear that Hofesh Shechter and John Fulljames' new production of Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice wasn’t going to be staple Covent Garden fare. The production is a fascinating exercise in – paradoxical as this may sound – minimalist complexity.

Juan Diego Flórez (Orphée) © Bill Cooper | ROH
Juan Diego Flórez (Orphée)
© Bill Cooper | ROH
Minimalism is inherent in the work – just three solo voices and a musical aesthetic that was positively austere for its times, shorn of what Gluck saw as the excesses of coloratura frippery that marked his predecessors. That minimalism is reflected in the staging: few props, simple costumes and plain backgrounds that create a feel of timeless space.

The trio of soloists was outstanding. The title role of the original Orfeo ed Euridice was written for castrato and Orphée for haute-contre. For a tenor, it’s very demanding, especially in Act I where Orphée is on stage for the vast majority of the act and, for much of this, the tessitura is unremittingly high. Flórez turned in an outstanding performance, the total embodiment of the fury and anguish of untimely bereavement. To project all four of power, expressivity, clarity and flexibility at the top of a tenor’s range seems a near-impossible feat, and Flórez turned in a real tour de force. He negotiated the few opportunities high wire coloratura with aplomb and produced good variety in the well-loved “J’ai perdu mon Eurydice”.

Lucy Crowe has a lot less air time as Eurydice, but plenty enough to show us her unique quality: a voice of utter sweetness at the top of the range. Also expressive, also nicely balanced and with rock solid technique, this was a fine performance to complement Flórez. Amanda Forsythe’s jaunty and somewhat more brittle soprano contrasted nicely as Amour, with some entertaining acting (and an unspeakable gold-lame-and-plastic-breasts costume).

Hofesh Shechter Company © Bill Cooper | ROH
Hofesh Shechter Company
© Bill Cooper | ROH

Minimalist, as this production may be, it's far from simple. The platform on which John Eliot Gardiner and his English Baroque Soloists were seated could stay at stage level, allowing cast to move through the orchestra between the back and front portions of the stage, rise high above, allowing dancers and chorus to flood to the front of the stage through the columns that supported it, or sink below to form a boundary between different groups in front or behind. Angled, moving ceiling panels permitted some gorgeous lighting effects while providing an acoustic wonderfully suited to the period instruments. Gardiner and the orchestra were magnificent, providing the propulsive force for the whole performance with vivacious, accented playing or, in the lyrical passages, giving us waves of sound on which to be wafted away.

Hofesh Shechter Company © Bill Cooper | ROH
Hofesh Shechter Company
© Bill Cooper | ROH

The most complexity came from the dancers of Hofesh Schechter. It’s the first time I’ve seen them and I was blown away by their ability to move as an organic mass: what looks like erratic flailing can then coalesce into perfect synchronism and then dissolve into randomness, reminding me of the behaviour of large shoals of fish. When executing more formal dances, they were pin sharp.

For all its extraordinary virtuosity, the production won’t be for everyone, because it suffers from a lack of narrative drive. Orphée et Eurydice is a 1774 rewrite of Gluck’s earlier Italian Orfeo ed Euridice, translated into French and lengthened, especially in the dance sections, to suit the tastes of a Paris audience. Each of the two acts contains an initial section where the bulk of the narrative happens followed by a long spell containing dance and arias/choruses which reflect on what we have seen. I found Shechter’s dancers fascinating to watch, but as an abstract spectacle rather than as part of the story. Both second halves dragged: Act I is especially long and wafting – deliciously so, but without real storytelling impact. Relatively dark lighting contributes to the slightly other worldly effect, as does the fact that a tenor singing long stretches at full power at the top of his range, even one as good as Flórez, cannot provide all that much variation in timbre.

Juan Diego Flórez (Orphée) and Lucy Crowe (Euridice) © Bill Cooper | ROH
Juan Diego Flórez (Orphée) and Lucy Crowe (Euridice)
© Bill Cooper | ROH

But I’ll set these caveats aside: this production has fascinating dancing, exceptional orchestral playing, superb soloists, singing from the Monteverdi Choir showing power and clear diction and a consistently inventive and attractive staging. If you’re looking for a Covent Garden production well outside the ordinary, it’s a must see.