At Garsington, the ‘Orfeo’ of our dreams, and a brilliantly revived ‘Cosi’

Orfeo/Cosi fan tutte

Garsington Opera, Wormsley

The director and designer of Garsington’s new Orfeo – John Caird and Robert Jones – invite their audience to get involved in the ‘immersive artistic experience’ of their show by wearing white apparel, not black-tie. Not enough first-nighters did this for the required effect, but that didn’t detract from the production’s extraordinary power. For this is the Orfeo of our dreams.

No other opera speaks so profoundly about life and death, love and loss. Orfeo and Euridice marry and are deliriously happy; she gets bitten by a snake and dies; armed with his harp, Orfeo follows her to the underworld where he wins her back, then loses her again through a misplaced loving glance; they re-meet in the heavens.

Orfeo -Garsington opera © Julian Guidera© Julian Guidera

Monteverdi’s take on this story is a ritual from start to finish and that’s how it’s presented here, with the orchestra onstage, their interludes covering the scene changes round a rocky pool in a verdant glade, which Paul Pyant’s lighting magically transforms into a menacing Hades.

Every member of music director Laurence Cummings’s English Concert ensemble is also a soloist, as is Cummings himself (on the first night he gallantly left the harpsichord to deliver the aria of a sick singer). The barefoot chorus led by its diminutive star is straight out of a Renaissance painting, figures whirling in wild abandon as they sing with passion fit to burst.

But the chief glory of this performance lies in the soloists spinning their poetry amid perfumed echoes on violins, plucked strings, and winds. As the incarnation of music, Claire Lees ringingly heralds the action, while Diana Montague’s Messenger announces the tragedy with a terrible finality; Lauren Joyanne Morris’s persuasive Persephone and Ossian Huskinson’s basso profundo Pluto hold court with grave authority; Frazer Scott’s black-toned ferryman Charon makes an ideal foil to Ed Lyon’s luminous Orfeo.

Orfeo - Garsington opera © Julian Guidera© Julian Guidera

Lyon’s messa di voce – a Baroque technique whereby single notes become subtle displays of vocal virtuosity – is intensely expressive as he deploys it on his journey from joy, to grief-stricken collapse, to anger, and finally celestial triumph. His long solo in Act Two keeps us spellbound, and the physicality of his performance anchors the whole show. This fabulous production absolutely must be filmed. ★★★★★

Meanwhile John Cox has revived his Garsington production of Cosi fan tutte, and what a relief to have this bitter tragicomedy shorn of the usual fake topicality. Cox sets it in a hotel on the French Riviera during the First World War, and he simply encourages his increasingly unhappy characters tear each other – and themselves – to shreds.

Singing Fioridiligi with infinite grace, the soprano Camilla Harris becomes the beating heart of this sparkling production, but the whole cast is superb. As Ferrando, Gavan Ring emerges as a fine lyric tenor, with Sean Boylan as his feisty collaborator; Polly Leech makes a resourcefully comic Dorabella, while Ailish Tynan’s Despina makes  non-stop mischief. Henry Waddington’s timing as Don Alfonso is irresistibly lethal, and as the accidental soldiers march off to war at the close, we realise that nothing can repair their shattered emotional lives. ★★★★★

Orfeo is in rep until July 3, and Cosi until July 20

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