Thomas Guthrie, who directs this semi-staging of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, is fascinated by the possibilities of puppets and masks.
At the Barbican last autumn they played a key role in his production of another ground-breaking work from the 17th century, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas.
Again, he and designer Ruth Paton dress the cast in black and double the central couple – here Orfeo and Euridice – with white bunraku-style puppets, each operated by the singer and a puppeteer. The members of the chorus manoeuvre small white masks in the manner of glove puppets – at least while the action is in the land of the living.
Once we enter the Underworld, all masks are dropped, though Orfeo and Euridice retain their alter egos. Only when Orfeo finally takes his place among the stars does he leave his ‘other self’ behind. The puppets are elegant and often touching – memorably so when the Orfeo puppet, stricken by the news of Euridice’s death, drops panting to the ground.
They cannot, however, respond to all the evolutions of Monteverdi’s music, which really does have a life of its own. It is perhaps ironic that the most dramatically engaging scene takes place between Plutone, King of the Dead, and his wife Proserpina.
Vocally, the cast is very much dominated by Matthew Long, as Orfeo, who brings compelling definition and vigour to both music and text.
Under Robert Hollingworth’s direction, the instrumentalists (nestling in the indentations of the H-shaped stage), weave a captivating web of sound around the hero in his crucial and astonishing aria, Possente Spirto. When it comes to the closing jollifications, they make the most of their unaccustomed place in the limelight.