(La favola d'Orfeo)

1st June 2022

Garsington Opera, UK

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This production of La Favola d'Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi & Alessandro Striggio opened at Garsington Opera on 1st June 2022. The set was designed so that the stage could be shared by singers, dancers and musicians, all working together and relating to one another throughout the performance. The opera was sung in Italian with English surtitles.

In conversation

Laurence Cummings and John Caird talk to Henrietta Bredin about Orfeo

Orfeo is considered to be the first work still performed today that can truly be called an opera, a fully developed combination of words and music in one dramatic whole. ‘It’s certainly the first ever great opera,’ says Laurence Cummings. ‘Monteverdi was a highly skilled musician and composer and he wanted to find a new old way, to resurrect a way of moving the audience through the narrative text and enhancing that with music so that music is the tool that transports people to a better place.’

‘It’s fascinating that he calls it a favola in musica, a fable in music,’ says John Caird. ‘He clearly made a decision to write a piece that is somehow instructive, that will teach the audience something, that will not only move them but make them identify with the characters. I think he wanted to have a conversation with the audience on the subject of mortality, to give them a chance to contemplate grief and loss and love that goes wrong – all the difficult things. He keeps stopping the action to let the audience have a think about where they are in the story, about the meaning behind the drama that is unfolding in front of them.’

What Monteverdi was able to rely upon was the fact that those experiencing his opera would know the story. ‘And it’s a very simple story,’ says Caird, ‘hardly anything happens. Man is happy and gets married, loses wife, tries to get her back, fails, is praised by a god for his perseverance.’ ‘You could add “man is sad” after “loses wife”,’ points out Cummings. ‘The simplicity is what enables Monteverdi to incorporate pauses, to leave space for people to catch up emotionally, almost to meditate on the themes that have been revealed to them.’ ‘And,’ adds Caird, ‘even if the audience doesn’t know the story, they are forewarned of its end from the minute the first dramatic thing happens, the Messenger bringing the news of Euridice’s death. As soon as they witness that scene, they know how the story will turn out, and that knowledge allows them to think deeply about more important questions; what does it mean to want to get somebody back? How long do you go on grieving? Do you go on hearing a loved one’s voice echoing after they’ve gone forever?Monteverdi never attempts to give you false hope, or to make you feel, as in Romeo and Juliet,or King Lear, that there is a chance, however small, that things might turn out alright.He sets the text in such a rigorous way, never toying with the audience’s emotions.’

For Cummings, with his extensive experience, both as a conductor and a harpsichordist, of interpreting and performing Baroque music, there is considerable satisfaction to be derived from the fact that the instrumentalists, in Caird’s production concept and Robert Jones’s set designs, are part of the action. They’re not in the orchestra pit but onstage and visible. ‘It was originally performed in Mantua in a small chamber, so the musicians were very close. Monteverdi wrote music that is absolutely truthful and from the heart. It’s essential that each character is presented with no artifice.’ Caird agrees – ‘There’s no subtext, people only sing what they feel, and that of course draws the audience in. I think the relationship between the audience and the chorus is very interesting. The members of the chorus aren’t characters with motives, they’re more like a Greek chorus, experiencing the events as they happen, exactly like the audience.’ ‘Even to my ears,’ says Cummings, ‘the music can sound strange. Not in a pejorative sense but it's arresting, it draws you in. For singers it can be rather disarming at first, with long notes that look extremely simple on the page. But what was so prized was the shape of those long notes, the way you controlled your breath – what’s known as the messa di voce. It’s a technique that embodies the natural pulse of the body, the swell of the breath, the heartbeat. You start from nothing, make a sound, it grows and leaves you and something’s changed; it’s like a yogic breath, in and out. And whereas much previous music had been polyphonic, lots of voices singing the same text or different text at the same time – what Monteverdi wanted was to make it possible for every person listening to understand every single word that was sung, to live the words with the performer. He wanted to create the most earthy, human experience possible, not something cerebral or above and beyond us.’

Caird is equally enthusiastic about the instrumentalists and singers sharing the stage. ‘It makes the instruments themselves like characters in the drama. Orfeo is a musician, he is invariably depicted holding a lyre or harp, but rather than have him wandering about the stage with a gold prop harp, we can instead share in a living relationship between him and a real harpist – an artistic marriage for all to see and hear, and one that could never be appreciated if the instrumentalists are stuck in a dark pit under the stage. The presence in the score of extended ‘ritornelli’ and ‘sinfonias’ also allows us to present a pastoral community in which dance is an integral part of the drama.Indeed, the final artistic statement of the work is a dance, a moresca, which I suppose could be described as Monteverdi’s version of a happy ending, a joyous and vigorous celebration of life in the face of our inevitable mortality.’

La favola d'Orfeo

Music by Claudio Monteverdi
Libretto by Alessandro Striggio

Creative Team

Conductor / Harpsichord Laurence Cummings
DirectorJohn Caird
DesignerRobert Jones
Lighting DirectorPaul Pyant
ChoreographerArielle Smith
Assistant Conductor / HarpsichordChristopher Bucknall
Assistant DirectorRebecca Melzer
Chorus DirectorJonathon Cole-Swinard
Music StaffNicholas Ansdell-Evans
Language CoachPatrizia Dina
SurtitlesKenneth Chalmers
Stage ManagerRay Bingle
Deputy Stage ManagerFelix Kröger
Assistant Stage ManagerZoë Morgan
Production ManagerIan Smith
Costume SupervisorEstelle Butler
Wigs SupervisorElizabeth Marini
Props SupervisorLisa Buckley
Technical DirectorSteve Hawkins


La MusicaClaire Lees
NinfaAnna Cavaliero
OrfeoEd Lyon
EuridiceZoë Drummond
MessagieraDiana Montague
La SperanzaLaura Fleur
CaronteFrazer Scott
ProserpinaLauren Joyanne Morris
PlutoOssian Huskinson
Solo Shepherds and SpiritsFlorian Panzieri / David Horton / Richard Pinkstone / Georgia Mae Bishop / Dafydd Jones / Philippe Durrant / Joe Chalmers / Michael Bell
Spirit of the Dance / Dance CaptainAmber Doyle
Spirits of the DanceMaddy Brennan / Benjamin Derham / Annie Joy Edwards / Cameron Everitt / Emily Gunn

The English Concert

Violin / LeaderNadja Zwiener
ViolinElizabeth McCarthy
ViolaJordan Bowron / Charlotte Fairbairn
Bass ViolinJoseph Crouch
VioloneCarina Cosgrave
TheorboSergio Bucheli / Pablo FitzGerald
HarpJoy Smith
Cornett / RecorderConor Hastings / Helen Roberts / Adrian Woodward
TrumpetMark Bennett
Trombone / TrumpetTom Lees / Hilary Belsey / Adam Crighton / Andrew Harwood-White / Adrian France
PercussionPedro Segunda
Harpsichords and Organ provided and tuned by Simon Neal