This year's Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music concluded with a ravishing performance of Monteverdi's Orfeo. Though - according to the Festival's publicity booklet - it was supposed to be semi-staged, the presentation was nowhere short of a full operatic experience.
La Venexiana, conducted and presumably also directed by the amazingly versatile Claudio Cavina, used St John's' available space with remarkable ingenuity. They also choreographed their movements in such a way that the illusion of larger spaces (such as the pastoral fields, as well as Plutone's kingdom of the underworld) was fully convincing. It is of note that the first performance of Orfeo took place in a small room (four hundred years ago in Mantua), so early music specialists La Venexiana gave an authentic performance from many points of view.
In this production the ancient plot is transferred to the twentieth century, with lovely coloured dresses for the ladies (including female members of the instrumental ensemble) and morning suits for the men at the wedding of Orfeo and Euridice. In Plutone's kingdom of the underworld black or white is worn, with some hellish red added to the black to remind us where we are. Speranza (Hope), who takes Orfeo to the underworld, is dressed in silver, thus differentiating between life, death and hope. The final happy ending - which is supposed to be Orfeo's ascent with Apollo to a musical heaven - is represented by the colour gold and apparently by a pop duet, complete with hand-held microphones, sung by Orfeo and Apollo.
For me the most astonishing performance came from Cavina. As conductor, he presented a beautiful and spirited authentic performance. The baroque style was delivered faultlessly by all the singers and instrumentalists. The lush warm sound of the strings in the sad passages, helped by beautifully judged slow speeds, was a welcome change from the often dry sounds heard in far too many early music performances. Only once did I find myself in disagreement: for me, Orfeo's 'Remember, oh shady woods' in the second act seemed very fast. But, arguably, such speed can lend extra vitality to Orfeo's joy.
Apart from conducting - and very well, I must add - Cavina sang the solo part of one of the shepherds. So there he was singing a short solo or in duets and even trios, while at the same time conducting the full ensemble. And, for good measure, he also participated in the stage action, which included shifting props. I should add that, as was evident at this performance, he is an excellent countertenor and presumably also a stage director. Our programme notes specified Paula Reggiani as the creator of costumes and design - though she also sang in the chorus - but no director was specified. The assumption therefore is that Cavina both directed and conducted.
Mirko Guadagnini gave a tour de force in the demanding part of Orfeo. His large range of dynamics was particularly impressive. Josť Lo Monaco (Hope) and Makoto Sakurada (Shepherd/Spirit) made strong and gratifying appearances, and Emanuela Galli (The Spirit of Music/Euridice) both looked and sounded lovely. Matteo Bellotto (Pluto) and Salvo Vitale (Charon) were commanding in presence and with their bass voices. However, I would have preferred a stronger voice for the part of Proserpine than we had on this occasion, and the Messenger sounded flat in pitch on several occasions.
The orchestra players, whether in solos or in ensembles, were on top form and the chorus excelled too. Perhaps the mute part of the photographing paparazzi, peculiar to this production, could have been scaled down but all in all, this was an Orfeo performance to cherish.
By Agnes Kory