Academy of Ancient Music, Richard Egarr, John-Mark Ainsley,
(Sophie Bevan, Daniela Lehner, Thomas Hobbs etc.)
The Academy of Ancient Music began life as ‘a refugee operation for period-instrument players’ in the words of its founder Christopher Hogwood. Forty years on, and three hundred ground-breaking recordings later, it’s a leader in the field, the go-to orchestra for innovative historic collaboration: it was the AAM playing Handel afloat at the Thames Jubilee pageant last year and bringing the sound world of Vermeer to vivid life at the National Gallery this summer. Now under the inspired leadership of Richard Egarr and an Associate Ensemble at the Barbican, the band kicked off its 40th anniversary season with a bold new concert staging of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo.
For director Orpha Phelan, Orfeo’s Thracian wedding became an arranged mafia marriage Sopranos-style. The rigid archetypes and honour codes of this particular underworld transfer to Ovid’s myth without strain: Euridice (Sophie Bevan) is a reluctant trophy bride, taking her own life before it’s too late, while Orfeo (John-Mark Ainsley) is going through the public motions required of a clan-leader groom, impatient for intimacy. It’s only when Euridice dies he begins to comprehend his loss, and descends into the psychological hell of grief, with nurse standing in place of Speranza (the luminous Daniela Lehner) and Caronte as the morgue’s pathologist (a rather wooden Paul Gerimon).
Bar-tending moll Proserpina (Katherine Manley) does a nice number in sexy persuasion to Dawid Kimberg’s Pluto, but her proffered solution to Orfeo’s woes is drink. Euridice appears as an alchohol-fuelled mirage, fading as he sobers up. While this interpretation undermines the dramatic crisis of the forbidden look, it’s all-too real as a depiction of haunted bereavement.
Ainsley has the role under his skin, and delivered a performance of angry pathos. His dark tenor has an almost baritone-like depth and heft, a fine foil to the younger Thomas Hobbs’s radiant Apollo/Pastore. In Ainsley’s great, centre-piece aria ‘Possente spirto’ one sensed the audience swoon to his ornate, seductively controlled melismas, and gasp as he discovers art can never replace love, breaking almost into Sprechstimme. The role has never felt so raw and contemporary.
Egarr’s mercurial energy ignited an alert, articulate reading, but did not always carry back to the chorus, whose entries were occasionally sluggish. Darkling, gritty sackbuts, the hieratic twang of a Baroque harp rising through dimly-lit mist conjured a dream-like Hades in the utilitarian Barbican hall. The subtle use of different continuo combinations always supported, but never overwhelmed, the poetry. No modern ensemble can ever replace the brindled textures created by these instruments, expertly played; one thinks of Manley Hopkins’ Pied Beauty, which praises ‘all things counter, original, spare, strange’.