L'Orfeo at the BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, reviewed by the Financial Times

L'Orfeo at the BBC Proms by Hugo Shirley
5 August, 2015 
Monteverdi’s masterpiece communicated a sense of wonder in this semi-staged performance.

After the Royal Opera’s staging of Orfeo at Camden’s Roundhouse in January, Monteverdi’s 1607 masterpiece found itself in another unconventional London space for this Prom. But the Royal Albert Hall, in the right hands, has a knack of shrinking down to achieve an unexpected sense of intimacy. John Eliot Gardiner and his musicians and singers managed this feat at several moments on this occasion, even if the venue did seem to come into its own as the echoey void of the underworld.

What was evident from the start was Gardiner’s vast experience with both the composer and the opera. This accumulated wisdom and mellowed love for the work translated into a seductive expressive freedom and flexibility of approach, with his virtuoso musicians allowed to embroider their delicate textures around the minimal notes the composer left behind.

The youthful cast and Monteverdi Choir communicated a sense of wonder that was apt for this wide-eyed allegory of love, loss and the power of music. The semi-staging was simple but effective and playful, with the cast and chorus making several excursions to dance down stage. The conductor handed a guitar to the terrific Italian soprano Francesca Aspromonte, zingy-voiced and expressive, during Music’s prologue; in a heartbreaking touch, meanwhile, the same singer’s Messenger forlornly made her way through the packed arena accompanied by a lone chitarrone to deliver the fateful news of Eurydice’s death.

Gianluca Buratto, impressively boomy and implacable as both Charon and Pluto, spent much of his time on stage slumped despairingly at an unused harpsichord. Mariana Flores sang with a crystalline upper register as Eurydice and Hope, and there were fine solo contributions elsewhere.

At the heart of it all was Krystian Adam’s Orfeo, sung with impeccable control and expressive nuance. His “Possente spirto” was a highlight and impeccably accompanied, even if his tenor lacked the melting beauty and colour that this personification of vocal seductiveness ideally requires. Throughout the two interval-less hours the atmosphere was, despite the hall’s size, one of hushed reverence and enraptured focus, followed by a deserved and thunderous outbreak of applause. That’s something a capacity Albert Hall can deliver like nowhere else.

Hugo Shirley