MONTEVERDI L'Orfeo (Agnew)
This production, filmed at the Théâtre de Caen in February 2017, is a natural extension of Les Arts Florissants’ five-year madrigals project. None of the music is ‘conducted’ by Paul Agnew, and instead all participants prove a shared affinity for democratic music-making – although there must also have been meticulous preparation and collaboration because portable instrumentalists (strings, recorders, cornetti, trombones) are in costume and on stage most of the time, playing from memory, and integrated into the scenes throughout. Only the bulky continuo instruments (various keyboards, harp) are fixed in positions on either side of the stage – two lute players move between the centre stage and continuo flanks as practicalities and dramatic sense dictate.
There is a wondrous simplicity and beauty to Agnew’s staging, which looks as if Caravaggio painted an equinox ceremony taking place in a stone circle; nymphs and shepherds celebrate the marriage of Orfeo and Euridice while also worshipping the sun (ie Apollo, who watches immutably over the world of mortals from the back of the stage). La Musica’s prologue, sung beautifully by Hannah Morrison, is elegantly restrained in its physical stage movements. Bucolic fun is depicted in a relaxed and natural way: tenor duets are sung with suppleness by Zachary Wilder and Sean Clayton, and ‘Vi ricorda o boschi ombrosi’ is staged as a game in which Orfeo improvises a song on verses supplied by a succession of friends. The artistic kinship between Mantuan madrigals and the shepherds’ anguished response to news of Euridice’s death (‘Ahi caso acerbo’) has seldom been made as explicit in theatrical representations as it is here.
Simple use of lighting produces a ribbon of blue on the floor to represent the Styx and a backdrop of crimson conjures Hades; the faces of the infernal spirits are hidden by black-hooded robes (and yet their moralising ensembles are sung with flawless precision). Cyril Auvity’s tremulous and emphatic singing of the title-role has unstinting dramatic commitment: the shadowy silhouettes of the obbligato instrumentalists in ‘Possente spirto’ appear as if the underworld is conjured to do Orfeo’s bidding). Miriam Allan’s gentle Proserpina and Antonio Abete’s dignified Plutone produce a tender depiction of devoted love. Upon losing Euridice forever, Orfeo’s malevolent bitterness is aptly shown as the half-human part of the demigod, reinforcing that he fails because he cannot master his own passions – a judgement sung without compassion by the infernal spirits but reiterated by Agnew’s Apollo with fatherly benevolence; the apotheosis in Act 5 has rarely seemed so touching and convincing as it does here.