Perhaps the most important feature of Philip Pickett's presentation of L'Orfeo is his thorough knowledge of the score and his unobtrusive direction of cast and instrumentalists. Pickett researched all aspects of Monteverdi's masterpiece in great detail and his painstaking work resulted in a historically authentic but at the same time highly enjoyable performance.
Pickett's programme notes for this performance provide an amazingly generous helping of fascinating analysis of L'Orfeo's music and text. There is plentiful information about the first performance 400 years ago on 24 February 1607. Probably because of a lack of further space (in the 22 page long programme), there is no specific section about Claudio Monteverdi himself. Nothing is said about the first surviving opera, Cavalieri's Rappresentatione di Anima, produced in Rome in February 1600. Nor are the other two operas preceding Monteverdi's L'Orfeo - Peri's Dafne and Euridice - mentioned. Yet Monteverdi is likely to have modelled his opera on Peri's Euridice. On the other hand Pickett tells about 15th-century traditions, classical traditions, Greek Gods and much more. It seems a shame that Pickett is not indicated as the writer though his extraordinary notes leave no doubt about authorship.
According to Pickett, the character of Orfeo is not in control of himself and of events developing around him. This, however, cannot be said about Mark Tucker, who gave an assured and impeccable performance in the title role. Tucker's musicality and vocal technique made Monteverdi's demanding florid lines sound easy and natural.
All of the singers excelled in their solos as well as in their ensembles. They clearly know the whole of the score, not only their own vocal lines. It is obvious that singers as well as instrumentalists should listen to each other but far too often the eyes take over from the ears. In this performance, the ears took precedence. So much so that most of the music was performed as chamber music, without any conducting. Pickett was on stage throughout but he allowed even complicated vocal duets/trios to be performed without evident direction from him (though very likely with slight encouragement via the occasional flick of his eyes). With such formidable continuo players as, for instance, David Roblou (organ and harpsichord) and Paula Chateauneuf (theorbo) Pickett was on safe ground. But Elisabeth Pallett (lute) too must be mentioned: during the opening scene she stood next to Joanne Lunn (who sang La Musica beautifully) and played the accompaniment from memory as if it was the most natural and obvious thing to do. Singer and lute player standing next to each other made dramatic sense. It is a shame that at the very end of the opera the ensemble fell slightly apart. With full forces at play the brass, a long way from the conductor and probably unable to hear the strings at the other side of the stage, did not play in time with the strings for a few seconds. It is of note that, with the exception of some of the brass players, the entire cast and instrumental ensemble were together for Pickett's 2003 performances of L'Orfeo.
The staging is supposed to be by Jonathan Miller but, judging by Pickett's programme notes, most of it must have originated from Pickett's research into the first performance of the opera and into 15th and 16th - century performing traditions. In this staging solo singers often move around in the auditorium, which they use for entry and exit from the stage, thus echoing the exit and approach from adjoining rooms in the first performance 400 years ago. Luckily the acoustics of the Queen Elisabeth Hall allowed such a staging without penalising the audience in the packed hall. All the singers, especially Mark Tucker, seemed to have a deep understanding of the psychology of their characters. I expect this is the part of the production which must have had a significant input from Dr Jonathan Miller.
Sue Lefton's choreography is pleasing to the eye and ear alike. Her movements seem to evolve naturally from Monteverdi's music. Shirin Guild's costumes did not please at least some of the audience (to whom I talked after the performance) but I myself appreciated the simplicity which allowed the music and drama to dominate. Credibility is also on Guild's side: so often shepherds and shepherdesses in opera wear costumes which seem at odds with their presumed occupation.
Philip Pickett and his team (New London Consort) recorded L'Orfeo for Decca in 1991. Unless a new recording by them is in the horizon, a copy of this Decca recording is a good way of celebrating L'Orfeo's 400th birthday.
By Agnes Kory