MASTERS of Monteverdi’s music, I Fagiolini, will combine singing, acting and live puppetry in tonight’s staging of the Italian composer’s first opera, L’Orfeo, in York.

The 7.30pm performance at the Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York, will form the first evening concert of the 2019 York Early Music Festival, running from today to July 13.

“In a festival focusing on the theme of Innovation: The Shock Of The New, L’Orfeo is a work that straddles the new world of baroque vocal expression and the older Renaissance traditions of court entertainment and madrigal, thus presenting the new form as a palatable mixture of the novel and the unfamiliar,” says festival administrative director Delma Tomlin.

“But it’s also quite simply opera’s first great masterpiece, a work of power, depth and beauty that after more than 400 years never fails to enthral.”

Sometimes called La Favola d’Orfeo, Claudio Monteverdi’s late Renaissance/early Baroque opera was premiered in the 1607 carnival season in Mantua, Italy.

Now it will be presented bymusical director Robert Hollingworth, stage director

Thomas Guthrie and designer Ruth Paton, with Matthew Long in the role of Orfeo and Jenni Harper as Euridice, accompanied by the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble.

“Delma wanted to involve Tom Guthrie in a production in the festival, and what he wanted to do to make it special was to use mask work,” says Robert Hollingworth. “Though in the end, he says, it will stand or fall on its storytelling.”

In using mask work, the singers will hold the mask, but not in front of their face.

“The mask expression is fixed, so the singer sings to the mask, which gives the mask its own physical presence,” says Robert.

He enjoys working with Guthrie. “The glorious thing is that we get on so well that it doesn’t ever matter whose leading the directing,” says Robert.

“Tom is one of the most interesting people working in semi-staged opera, where the audience gets more than a concert performance, but giving people something extra has always been part of I Fagiolini, when it’s a live performance and frankly anything can happen – and I think people feel much more involved because of that.”

The result will be a fast-paced performance that should deliver on the expectation placed on opera directors to create the spectacular. Hence the mask work.

“There’s no suggestion that masks were worn in early opera, because of the problem created by putting a mask on your face, but we know that the Italian theatre form of commedia dell’arte flourished in Monteverdi’s time, with the use of mask work being an essential part of it.

“There was so much going on at the time that Monteverdi could take his inspiration from for his debut opera.”

As was the courtly custom, Monteverdi was instructed to write L’Orfeo by the Duke of Mantua. “The Duke’s son then took over the production side of it, bringing in a counter tenor,” says Robert.

“The romantic view of composing is one thing, but then there’s the reality of having to do things, day in, day out, writing to order, as Monteverdi did, in Mantua.”

Tonight’s concert has sold out, but the festival has highlights aplenty, such as tenor James Gilchrist and baritone Peter Harvey’s Ornate Lieder concert with fortepianist Peter Seymour on Monday at 6pm at the National Centre for Early Music.

York soprano Bethany Seymour and 2018 Handel Singing Competition-winning mezzo-soprano Helen Charlston perform an Italian Baroque concert on Wednesday at 1pm at the Unitarian Chapel, St Saviourgate; theorbo and chiarrone player Elizabeth Kenny presents Theorbo Fantasy: Old and New Music for the Long Necked Lute in the Undercroft of the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall on Thursday at 9.15pm.

The full programme and ticket details can be found at Bookings also can be made on 01904 658338.

Charles Hutchinson