Longborough Festival Opera *****

Nestling in the Cotswolds, this charming venue has long gained international renown for its Wagner presentations, so it might come as a surprise to find artistic director Polly Graham turning her attention to Monteverdi’s l’Orfeo.

Yet this example of one of the earliest pioneering operas, creating a whole new art-form, does in fact share several of Wagner’s ideas. Inspired by recent discoveries about the structure and delivery of the sound-world of ancient Greek theatre, an academy of enthusiasts hit upon the idea of seamlessly unfolding heightened text-delivery creating something original (an aim echoed by Wagner a quarter of a millennium later, where recitative took precedence over set-piece arias and ensembles).

Naturally the subject-matter for these creators centred upon the seminal staple of all music, the legend of Orpheus, whose musical prowess won over even the guardians of the Underworld. Wagner’s subject-matters were equally mythical, not least in the Ring cycle.

Wagner is credited with inventing the idea of the Leitmotif, a recurrent musical theme representing a fixed idea; no, he didn’t. Monteverdi does exactly the same in L’Orfeo, thematic returns quickening the memory of what has gone before.

Directed by Olivia Fuchs and Nate Gibson, this presentation of the world’s first great opera simply gripped an enthralled audience (perhaps not knowing what to expect) from start to finish, getting off to a spectacular start with the colourful array of instruments which make up the expert Venetian Baroque ensemble La Serenissima, expertly and unassumingly conducted by Robert Howarth. It was so good to able to see this fascinating assemblage too, raised from the orchestral pit.

The company onstage was small, always busily energetic, yet freezing into appalled stasis at moments of tragic announcement. They brought huge sonority to the madrigalian choruses, and soloists emerged from their ranks.

Surtitles were exemplary, complementing the admirable clarity of declamation from the singers. Among these were the tormented bad-news Messenger of Frances Gregory, the literally deus ex machina of Seumas Begg’s Apollo, and the subterranean tones of Freddie Tong’s ferryman Charon.

For his scene we had no attempt at recreating a boat over the river Styx. Here we were in a hospital ward, Charon supervising a trolley bearing the corpse of Euridice, while Orfeo pleads with him to allow him to join her in her transition to the Underworld.

To persuade him Orfeo sings one of the greatest arias in all opera, “Possente spirto”, each verse growing in virtuosity, and demanding equal virtuosity from each group of accompanying instrumentalists. Tenor Peter Gijsbertsen was more than outstanding in this fraught showpiece, well on top of all the abstruse early baroque techniques (including the notorious ‘goat’s trill’) and phrasing with a smooth breath-control, in a performance which would have persuaded anybody to give in to his charms.

Christopher Morley

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