First performed in the Court of Venice nearly 400 years ago, Monteverdi's 'favola per musica', or story in music (the word opera had yet to be coined), returns triumphantly to the stage of the London Coliseum in David Freeman's breathtakingly beautiful 1981 production.
Not a fan of much of Freeman's work, I was surprised by the simplicity and honesty of the entire undertaking. The stage is bare apart from a few rocks and Eastern looking carpets, which hang from the flies. The lighting rigs are entirely visible at the side of the stage, and it is just about possible to make out the Rosenkavalier set languishing in the deep recesses of the stage. Freeman thus thrusts the action right to the front of the audience and over the pit.
The Orpheus legend is timeless but we're somewhere in Eastern Europe here, as the villages re-enact the story as an act of communal faith. And, apart from the scene in Hades, which now looks a bit clichéd, it works brilliantly.
When the production was new, Anthony Rolfe Johnson sang the title role; now he's in the pit making his conducting debut. He leads a brilliantly spirited performance, and always allows the singers to phrase beautifully - never hurrying whilst the orchestra, augmented with period instruments including lutes, sackbutts and recorders, surpasses itself.
The large cast, which is also used as the chorus, is nothing short of sensational, built on mainly company talent with a few guests more than ably making their mark. John Mark Ainsley is an outstanding Orfeo, combining Italiante finesse with his exquisitely schooled tenor, which results in a performance of world class potential. As the messenger who brings news of the fate of Eurydice, Christine Rice gives an impassioned performance of burning intensity. And Mark Padmore makes an auspicious house debut in the role of Apollo, whilst Keel Watson is an imposing Charon.
What with the intensity of the staging, a cast without a single weak link and immaculate orchestral playing, this is an evening not to be missed. The ENO seems to be on an unstoppable roll at the moment - long may it continue.