The last production I saw of L’Orfeo explored the idea of music as a manipulative force, suggesting disturbing consequences to the docility it can engender. Director Claus Guth is less concerned with Orfeo the musician, and makes minimal acknowledgement of the work’s pastoral and mythic elements. He focuses instead on the consequences of Orfeo’s union with Euridice, suggesting that it is so powerful that their individuality has been subject to irreversible change. With Orfeo’s subjectivity half-demolished by the union, life after the death of Euridice ceases to be possible, and much of this production is devoted to Orfeo coming to terms with the reasons for his fate.

Christian Schmidt’s set is a well-appointed drawing room in the home of Orfeo, who is a reserved, bookish type, perhaps an academic or a writer. A staircase leads up to a gallery-style landing and bedroom, space which is exploited dramatically and symbolically. Act I begins in the downstairs room, which fills with action as friends of the newly-weds prepare a Greco-Roman themed wedding reception. Togas and laurel wreaths grant licence to some of the more uninhibited guests to indulge in silly antics and drunken dancing. With the announcement of Euridice’s death, the harmless fun becomes an object of shame for all concerned, and in a neat touch, Guth brings in two late arrivals who uncomfortably set a present down on the coffee table before making an embarrassed exit.

Things swiftly turn dark for Orfeo: grief drives him to make two attempts on his life, but even suicide out of desperation, the ultimate act of will, is denied. The character of Hope does not accompany Orfeo to the gates of Hades, and aware of the futility of rescuing Euridice, Caronte the ferryman passes out drunk on Scotch as Orfeo begins ‘Possente spirito’, his famous song of pleading. Orfeo tries to deliver the song to an apparition of Euridice, but she falls lifeless to the floor. The two rulers of the underworld sip tea and seem similarly aloof to his woes. When he is noticed, Orfeo is only mocked in his path to self-understanding: he goes to the bathroom and a video projection shows him looking into the mirror and hallucinating images of the party guests, who sneer at him; when he leads Euridice from the underworld she wears a spiteful expression. By this point he is aware that the psychological journey will only end when he understands the logic of his death. Guidance finally comes in the form of Apollo, who ascends with Orfeo to some place that may or may not be the heavens. Orfeo comes back to earth shaken but in possession of the self-knowledge required for the end, and falls down the stairs as one of his massive drug overdoses from earlier takes hold. There is time for a fleeting, poignant glance at Euridice’s empty shoes and a wedding photograph, but as the jubilation of the closing dance reaches its height, he dies.

Guth’s dark, Wagnerian staging may seem an ill fit for Monteverdi, but his events unfold without betraying the dramatic content of the opera, even when the stage action appears to contradict the letter of the libretto. The opera’s original ending left Orfeo hanging in the balance, and Guth steers between that and what can seem to modern audiences as a rather contrived deus ex machina resolution with a thought-provoking death that probes questions of existence and fate.

The Freiburger Barockorchester was complemented in the pit by the Monteverdi Continuo Ensemble, and both made a strong contribution with a good balance between body and flexibility in the ensemble. Conductor Ivor Bolton eschewed overly flowery ornamentation and period practice articles of faith about vibrato, which, applied in moderation, added welcome warmth to the strings. John Mark Ainsley is presently suffering from a heavy cold, but acted the role of Orfeo while Mirko Guadagnini (Apollo in this production, but also a seasoned Orfeo) sang the part from the pit. When Guadagnini appeared as Apollo, ensemble member Jeroen de Vaal took over in the pit. Given the short notice, Guadagnini’s mastey of the role was remarkable – he sung immaculately with beauty, strength, and emotional power, and brought musical insights to the smallest details of the text. Katija Dragojevic was also excellent as La Musica, adding some appropriately baleful touches. Mari Eriksmoen’s Euridice sounded pure, clean and bright, while Philip Ens and Suzana Ograjenšek switched smoothly between their two respective roles. The supporting cast and Arnold Schoenberg Chor were all excellent.

With strong musical performances and a production that demands to be taken seriously, this was an impressive start to the series of Monteverdi operas that will be staged by Claus Guth at the Theater an der Wien.