The Meat Market space is cold on this winter’s night in Melbourne. It feels like carnival time in Mantua. Anthony Lyons’ early music/electronic Reconfiguring Orpheus comes out of the speakers. The layered texture gives a modern and edgy slant to Claudio Monteverdi’s music. Conventions are broken and expectations rise as Melbourne’s early music practitioners, singers, musicians, scholars and connoisseurs gather for the rare occasion of a performance of Alessandro Striggio and Claudio Monteverdi’s favola in musica L’Orfeo (Mantua, 1607).

In the hands of recognised scholar-performers led by Professor Jane Davidson, The Tale of Orpheus honours the fundamental ideals of the culture that cradled the famous early opera. La Musica opens with a prologue to ascertain her powers. It is by stirring the human passions that she “can calm each troubled heart, and now with noble anger, now with love, can kindle the most frigid minds … [to] inspire souls with a longing for the sonorous harmony of heaven’s lyre.”

David Greco, OrfeoDavid Greco as Orfeo. Photo © Sarah Walker 

The mise en scène is contemporary and sparing. Imaginative lighting creates a mysterious ambience and brings attention to facial expressions, while clever use of props renders the scene in Hades accurately. Round paper lanterns reference Boëthius’ theory that models the interplay between the music of the spheres, the music of the human body and that made by people. In this production, the allegorical character of Music, performed by Allegra Giagu, binds the action and manipulates the turns and twists of the fable.

The energy of the performers is entrancing. I can hear their breathing. I can almost touch them. They move through the space and dance in front of the side curtains that hide what used to be vendor stalls. The Melbourne Conservatorium of Music’s voice students sing ensembles and choruses with vibrant rhythms and beautiful phrasing. The purity of their voices is alluring and their Italian pronunciation is clear. Whether portraying spirits or nymphs and shepherds, they are eager to play. They dance, act and delight in trying out new ways of performing.

OrfeoHeather Fletcher as the Messenger. Photo © Sarah Walker

Most impressive was David Greco in the title role. His voice and stage presence captivate; his performance is masterful, poised and exemplary. Greco was undeniably Orfeo – the famous singer who hypnotises animate and inanimate objects with his music, even those in the Underworld; Orfeo – the suffering human, and Orfeo – the mystic. Hannah Lane complemented the characterisation in the famous aria Possente spirto with an inspired lyre tone on her triple harp. The enchantment of Greco’s rendition of stile rappresentativo (theatrical style) rests in the nuance of his phrasing and in the import he places on the words. The rhetorical emphasis he afforded the famous line “Tu se’ morta” (You are dead) is unforgettable.

Heather Fletcher in the role of the Messenger also conveyed a strong rendition of the words. The consideration and empathy with which she delivered the terrible news were moving because she was moved. Her intuitive gestures painted the details of the dreadful incident of Euridice’s death, giving a glimpse of the dramatic potential of gestural action in performance.

Orfeo, Melbourne Conservatorium of MusicThe Chorus. Photo © Sarah Walker

Under the baton of early scores resuscitator Dr Erin Helyard, with Dr David Irving playing the first violin and armed with an array of early music alumni and current students, the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music Orchestra realised Monteverdi’s score with lively tempos and a variety of sonorities and dynamics. More importantly, the emotional undertones that the continuo section achieved through vivid figured bass realisations and ornamentation brought Striggio’s text and its passions to life.

As God Apollo descends from heaven to assert that “on earth, nothing that delights is lasting”, this performance eventually came to an end. I am amazed how this project intertwines research, performance and education to create a fertile ground for creative collaboration and innovation.

The Tale of Orpheus was produced by the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music at The University of Melbourne in association with the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions.