Hampstead Garden opera perform period Orfeo

Hampstead Garden Opera is taking on the challenge of Orfeo with an orchestra of ‘period’ instruments

Monteverdi’s Favola d’Orfeo isn’t quite the first acknowledged opera, but it’s where the standard repertory begins. And to perform it you have to go back in time, to the sound-world of early 17th century court entertainment where things were very different to the way they ended up in the mid-19th Century theatres that still govern our idea of how opera works.

About to make that journey back is Hampstead Garden Opera, which is taking on the challenge of Orfeo with an orchestra of ‘period’ instruments: theorbos, regales, viole da gamba, et al.

It’s a considerable departure from the usual, modern combination of strings, wind and brass that HGO delivers for its Madam Butterflys and Traviatas – though, as music director Oliver-John Ruthven says, it’s also something the company has been edging toward in recent shows like Handel’s Semele, which have made efforts to address the issue of baroque sound and performance practice.

‘Going back to the start of opera history is something I’ve been wanting to do for a long while’, says Ruthven, ‘but it was only last year, when I was playing continuo harpsichord in an Orfeo staged by someone else that I realised it was possible for a company like HGO. And suitable’.


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With a mix of young professional soloists and amateur chorus, HGO has to be careful in its choice of repertoire. And though that hasn’t stifled its ambition in the past, the world of period performance makes peculiar demands: you enter it with scholarship, conviction and finesse or not at all.

The scholarship is specially important, because Monteverdi doesn’t fully orchestrate his score. He gives a general indication of the instruments he wants but rarely tells you how and when to use them: all you get is an unspecified accompaniment. It’s up to the conductor to decide these things – which makes every performance unique and to some extent improvisatory.

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‘I have all the decisions about instrumental colour and word-painting in my own hands’, says Ruthven, ‘which is exciting but a challenge’. And another challenge is to work out how many instrumentalists to use – because Monteverdi’s indications vary according to which source you follow. The first ever performance in 1607 took place in a small room in the Ducal Palace,Mantua and probably had no more than ten players, but we know that later stagings had four times that number.

We also know that later stagings changed the ending of the story – from having Orpheus torn limb from limb by angry women to the less exciting but more technically demanding spectacle of his assumption into heaven (with a cloud machine that wouldn’t have been possible in the original, small room).

HGO’s production leans more toward the heavenly solution (so no limb-tearing), and it won’t have the all-male cast Monteverdi envisaged (no castratos either!). But it does one seriously novel thing: it double-casts the lead role, alternating between baritone and tenor.

‘Strictly speaking, Orpheus is written for a tenor’, admits Ruthven, ‘but it’s not particularly high. In fact it’s almost baritonal; and as we’re using modern pitch, it’s actually quite low in the voice. So we made this decision to alternate between tenor and baritone and see which works best. I’m hoping some audience members might come twice to make up their own minds’.

For the record, it’s a tenor on the evenings Nov 9, 10, 15, plus matinees 17, 18; and a baritone on matinees Nov 10, 11, plus evenings 14, 16, 17. Evenings start at 7.30pm. Matinees vary. And the venue, as always, is the Gatehouse, Highgate Village. Full details: www.hgo.org.uk. Booking 020 8340 3488

BELINDA EVANS

There’s a grating relationship between the worlds of grand opera and West End musicals; and when they do sometimes meet – though singers doing cross-over – it doesn’t always work.

But one singer who’s been crossing back and forth rather successfully is the West Hampstead-based Belinda Evans who’s about to take the lead in a new Traviata for Opera UK that launches at the RADA Studios, Chenies St before it takes off on a British tour.

Back in 2006 she reached the TV finals of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s search for a star, How do you Solve a Problem Like Maria; and though she didn’t win overall, it did result in twelve months singing Phantom of the Opera – which she’d probably still be doing but for the fact that she got lured back into what was her first calling. More or less.

Born in the West Country, she’d planned to be a vet before discovering Verdi – who proved a more powerful stimulus than ministering to cows, and propelled her into a vocal course at the Welsh College of Music and Drama.

Then came the hard choice: musicals with microphones or opera without? As she says, ‘they demand different vocal techniques, but the fact is, I love both; I’ve have always been drawn to the Rogers & Hammerstein kind of musical-theatre that comes close to operatic style; and I had a great time doing Phantom, because I love the West End buzz’.

As things turned out, she was able to get back into opera and still enjoy that buzz – because she found herself singing Mimi in the landmark Opera Up Close Boheme that opened in a Kilburn pub but then transferred to the Soho Theatre, winning an Olivier Award in the process.

More recently, she’s been doing Poulenc’s Mammelles de Tiresias for the prestigious Britten-Pears School, Aldeburgh. And this new Traviata is a long-held ambition, since it was Violetta’s Act I aria Sempre Libera that, she says, first turned her mind away from cows when she was planning to devote her life to them. Their loss, our gain.

Belinda Evans stars in Opera UK’s Traviata, Nov 12-15, 7.30pm, RADA Studios, Chenies St, W1. Booking: 020 7307 5060

MOZART REQUIEM

Every year around this time at Hampstead Parish Church there’s a tradition of putting together a ‘scratch requiem’ – which has nothing to do with terminal psoriasis but is a turn-up&sing event where anyone with some semblance of a voice is invited to bring a score, rehearse in the afternoon, and perform in the evening.

This year it’s the Mozart Requiem (a fairly easy sing, so don’t be shy), conducted by HPC’s brand new director of music James Sherlock – who will be starting the rehearsal at 2.30pm sharp on Saturday Nov 10th.

The public performance starts at 6pm. And as the Mozart Requiem isn’t particularly long, the programme will also feature Sherlock in his other role as a concert pianist, playing one of the all-time favourite Mozart concerti, No.23, K488. Full details/booking: 020 7794 0574.

ALSO COMING UP

Elgar Explored – Thurs 8- Sat 10 Nov, Kings Place, N1. A mini-festival of Elgar’s chamber music, songs and larger works, that includes a study day on the Saturday and finishes with Alice Neary playing the Cello Concerto that night. Details: www.kingsplace.co.uk

More Elgar – Sat 10 Nov, 7.30pm, All Hallows, Gospel Oak. Highgate Choral Society and New London Orchestra perform the Dream of Gerontius – the grandly soulful, deeply Catholic oratorio that Elgar considered ‘the best of me’, and he was probably right. Ronald Corp conducts. Booking: www.hcschoir.com

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