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Orpheus review at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London – ‘a musical success’

Caitlin Hulcup, Sky Ingram, Keri Fuge, Verena Gunz and Jennifer Davis in Orpheus at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey Caitlin Hulcup, Sky Ingram, Keri Fuge, Verena Gunz and Jennifer Davis in Orpheus at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey
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Back in March 2014, the Royal Opera joined forces with Shakespeare’s Globe to present the first opera in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse – Cavalli’s L’Ormindo of 1644, in a production by Kasper Holten that was widely viewed as a success and revived in February of this year.

Now the collaboration is renewed with another 17th-century work: Luigi Rossi’s Orfeo, first performed in Paris in 1647. Historically, the piece is important as the first opera to be commissioned in France – though a couple of ready-made Italian examples (including another by Cavalli) had previously made it over the Alps.

Rossi’s version of the Orpheus story – sung here, sensibly, in an English translation by Christopher Cowell – is a lengthy one, with lots of extra characters and a good deal more plot detail than either Monteverdi’s or Gluck’s much better known settings, as well as quite a few comic scenes.

As with L’Ormindo, the piece and the venue make an excellent match. On the gallery above the stage, Baroque music specialist Christian Curnyn conducts nine members of the Orchestra of Early Opera Company, who give a finely balanced account of the score.

With convincing singers throughout the cast, the music comes over persuasively: particularly delightful are the interventions of the three Graces, sung by Lauren Fagan, Jennifer Davis and Emily Edmonds, while from a purely visual point of view Nicky Shaw’s straightforward props and period costumes work well.

Keith Warner’s staging is more problematic. The complex narrative registers as it needs to, but the tone is at times laborious, particularly in the comic scenes, which feel like hard work for everyone concerned. There are memorable individual contributions, nevertheless, from Siobhan Stagg’s Orpheus, Louise Alder’s Eurydice and especially Caitlin Hulcup’s Aristaeus in the principal roles. Supporting them, Sky Ingram as Venus and Keri Fuge as Cupid, as well as Philip Smith in the dual roles of Endymion and Charon, all perform well.

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The second collaboration between the Royal Opera and Shakespeare’s Globe is a musical success, though Keith Warner’s staging feels laboured