Paris, 1647, carnival time. The French monarchy is rising towards the zenith of its glory, with King Louis XIV just nine years old. The regent, Cardinal Mazarin (born Giulio Mazzarino) is on a mission to import Italian culture to the French capital; he and the Queen Mother, Anne of Austria, commission a work to be fashioned from the melding of dance into the new art form of opera, of such scale and extravagance that historians will later quote it as a contributor to La Fronde, the civil war that wracked France for five years.

Graeme Broadbent (Pluto) © ROH | Shakespeare's Globe | Stephen Cummiskey
Graeme Broadbent (Pluto)
© ROH | Shakespeare's Globe | Stephen Cummiskey

On the face of it, Luigi Rossi’s Orpheus is a strange choice to be staged in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at the Globe, which has period credentials by the bucketload but is the most intimate of spaces. However, buoyed by the huge success of L’Ormindo, another carnival opera of the time, the Globe and the Royal Opera have taken on the challenge, with the same musical director (Christian Curnyn) but a different director (Keith Warner).They make a creditable effort with what turns out to be a problematic piece.

Sensibly, Warner and Curnyn halve the length of Orpheus from its original six hours to a mere three, abandoning, amongst other things, the blatant monarchist propaganda that opens and closes Rossi’s original, but retaining much of the extensive list of subplots and their associated characters. The comparison to Gluck’s minimalist Orfeo ed Euridice, with a cast list of just three, could hardly be more stark. Characters additional to the obvious Orpheus / Eurydice / Pluto / Charon include Cupid, Venus and Aristaeus (a hapless lover of Eurydice spurned in favour of Orpheus) with appearances made by Aegea (nurse/confidant of Eurydice) Jupiter, Endymion, Momus, Bacchus, the Three Graces, the Three Fates and others.

Keri Fuge (Cupid) and Sky Ingram (Venus) © ROH | Shakespeare's Globe | Stephen Cummiskey
Keri Fuge (Cupid) and Sky Ingram (Venus)
© ROH | Shakespeare's Globe | Stephen Cummiskey
Rossi’s distinctive feature is his ability to turn on a sixpence between farce and serious aria, and he shifts between those opposites at dizzying speed. For the first two acts, it makes for a madcap experience that doesn’t quite come off. There is a lot of running around the stage, but it all gets a bit manic and unfocused: these are singers, not dancers, and it shows. There are some great voices, but often, they’re too loud for the space and too unintelligible: it gets hard to follow what’s going on. Christopher Cowell’s translation got a lot of laughs, mainly for some of the rhymes and the insertion of anachronisms. It didn’t do much for me (apart from anything else, I could see a lot of the rhymes coming several bars before they arrived), but the audience clearly enjoyed phrases like “that would be a major bonus” inserted into otherwise baroque-sounding lyrics. One of the running gags of the evening is that Venus is having a perpetual struggle with her unruly son Cupid, and her telling him roundly to “just bugger off” brought the house down.

The voices are good. Graeme Broadbent steals the show as the cynical Satyr who advises the men that marriage will be merely trouble and strife, he projects robust good humour while thrilling us with a gravelly basso profondo. Sky Ingram is a splendid Venus, a magnet for the audience’s attention. Louise Alder’s Eurydice is the pick of the singers for the sublime parts. The set of emotions she has to project isn’t exactly complex, but she puts across Eurydice’s fidelity and despair in an engaging manner, helped by a sweet voice, spot-on intonation and well-turned phrasing.

Louise Alder (Eurydice) © ROH | Shakespeare's Globe | Stephen Cummiskey
Louise Alder (Eurydice)
© ROH | Shakespeare's Globe | Stephen Cummiskey
In view of Mary Bevan having a throat infection, the title role was sung by Siobhan Stagg with Bevan acting – the plan is that Stagg will act the role also from the third performance until Bevan’s return. Obviously, having to split the role isn’t ideal, but Bevan put in a sterling effort at mime and Stagg showed that she certainly has the voice for the role.

Some of the theatrical tricks worked well. Venus’s transformation into the old crone Alkippe is masterly, and the appearance of the Three Graces in Act II (I won’t give the game away) comes as a real shock. I enjoyed Act III a lot more, when the frantic pace slackened off and we were treated to some truly lovely arias from Stagg’s Orpheus, Alder’s Eurydice and Caitlin Hulcup as Aristaeus - having spent most of the previous two Acts being downtrodden and risible, Hulcup seized her chance to project some real pathos.

L’Ormindo, from the same period, by the same company at the same venue, was the best thing I saw last season. Orpheus doesn’t come close to that completeness, but any performance at the Sam Wanamaker is a delight and there’s plenty to enjoy in this production. And it’s worth going out of historical interest alone.

© ROH | Shakespeare's Globe | Stephen Cummiskey
© ROH | Shakespeare's Globe | Stephen Cummiskey