Monteverdi: The Tale of Orpheus – Review

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Published: 17th September, 2017

The signature note of this performance was Authenticity with a capital “A”. However, you may wish to shrug aside the reviewer’s comments because she is now unashamedly biased in favour of anything produced by the liaison of The Melbourne Conservatorium of Music and The ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions having reviewed the production of Passion, Lament, Glory at Easter 2017, and now Monteverdi’s  The Tale of Orpheus. The two organisations form an incredibly profound, creative and talented partnership.

I did expect another trapeze solo but I was disappointed in this. However, it was the only expectation I had that was not fulfilled by this performance. Again the public were treated to a very carefully and professionally choreographed presentation where even every facial gesture was orchestrated to carry along the tale of Orpheus and his quest to bring back his dead love, Eurydice, from the Underworld.

Thus, in choice of subject we have moved on from the expressions of corporate loss of the Saviour of The Passion to the exploration of the individual loss of a beloved soul mate explored in the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. A clever choice for exploration when the canon of the history of emotion is so vast and encompasses the full expression of the human condition. This is the archetypal expose of the effect of experiencing the greatest love, ecstatic delight and joy which turns into the deepest grief and despair. A very suitable choice of theme for the partnership.

The Prelude music by Anthony Lyons, Reconfiguring Orpheus, set a mythical scenario with its repetitive echoing and hypnotic quality, a scrambled hotchpotch of sound with 17th century musical signatures with a breathless whispered quality which created the unpredictable, scandalous, poisonous and possibly even treasonous undercurrents of an early 17th century Italian Ducal Court.   Monteverdi was in the patronage of the Duke of Mantua for whose court he composed this music and Striggio wrote the lyrics so this was a sensitive and creative reading of the atmosphere in which the music was born.

The Instrumental Ensemble was conducted by Erin Helyard, a consummate musical artist.   He also played the harpischord and organ producing a totally authentic sound as the instruments were copies of instruments which would have accompanied the premiere of the opera at the Mantuan Court in 1607. Thus the sackbutts, cornettis and long-necked theorbos, to name just some of the instruments, gave us a distinctive and historically accurate sound. The trumpets with their shrill, tinny sound were perfect for creating the right musical backdrop.

The Nymph and Shepherds were graceful, elegant and clever in their dancing, acrobatics and fairground tricks and never let drop their facial guard which showed the studied professionalism of their work. If the chorus members are of such disciplined high order at this stage of their studies, where will they end up!  My particular favourite was the male singer and dancer who skipped so lightly and spritely across the stage, seemingly in imitation of a refugee from Riverdance. The Irish flavour of the movement was a charming modern touch but was not out of place as it also suggested what an Italian peasant dance of the 17th century may well have looked like.

The Spirits of Hades gave their all in a producing an atmosphere on the constant edge of danger as these goblin-like creatures, if we are not mixing mythical metaphors, minced and leered their way across the stage.

The production was very fortunate to have the musical services of David Greco as Orpheus, putting in a flawless performance. His career as a world-class performer is well in progress and his appearance gave edge, security and gravitas to this staging of Orpheus. His mastery of difficult singing techniques is obvious and he anchored the singing performances but was also partnered by some beautiful voices.

I enjoyed the teasing naughty and playful staging of the wooing of Orpheus and Eurydice. The beckoning finger put me in mind of Don Giovanni and Zerlina in her seduction scene!

Amongst the stand-out voices and actors for me were Thomas Harvey as Pastore 2, whose charming legato tenor sound, and expressive face and action made his role memorable. While the voice of Speranza was a little lacking in power and range, the mellow richness and depth of Anthony Mackey’s voice made him an ideal casting for Charon, the ferryman of the underworld. With the miner’s light on his head this character introduced a rather comic note into the performance, balanced by the warning we were dealing with the darker forces of nature.

Proserpina and Plutone (Olivia Federow-Yemm, Nathan Camilleri) were an ideally matched couple in voice and expression. Proserpina’s voice was rich lyrical and finely balanced with a sweet tone and I was really attracted and held by Pluto’s rich bass baritone. (But I chuckled quietly at the presentation of Proserpina who looked like a Victorian Chatelaine in bovver boots!).

The performance ended humorously with The Muse playing the castanets. This surprise musical action provided an end comment to the whole of the performance which was based on a cast of multi-talented artists whose strengths were used to great effect to enhance all the aspects of the performance.

This inevitably leads to some closing thoughts about the combined team work of Professor Jane Davidson and Matthew Adey.   Jane Davidson has a very impressive career which spans both the Melbourne Conservatorium and now the ARC Centre of Excellence of the History of Emotions and Matthew Adey works very well within this creative team. Her huge experience and creativity shows for the second time for this reviewer (previous work, Passion, Lament, Glory) she has been able to mount a production that is richly layered, deeply felt and high associative. It expands the understanding of the human condition. What a feat! Where to next?

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Monteverdi’s The Tale of Orpheus was produced by the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music at The University of Melbourne in association with the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions.

Reviewer Janette Obuch saw this production at the Meat Market, North Melbourne, on Friday, September 8, 2017.