Wednesday 23 August 2023

Review by Kim Wiltshire of "Orfeo's Last Act" by Michelene Wandor

Orfeo’s Last Act is an ambitious dual-narrative novel, telling the tale of the Renaissance Jewish musician Salamone Rossi and the modern-day Professor of English Emilia Constantine. During an early music conference, Emilia finds the original last act of what is considered one of the first operas, Orfeo, in a trunk in an old manor house in East Anglia – left by Rossi when he was working there as a teacher over 400 years ago. The find reveals Rossi, and not Monteverdi, to be the original composer of this fifth act, and gives Emilia a dilemma in terms of what to do with this discovery. 

The novel is well researched with a firm understanding of the historical era; the writer clearly understands her music and there is a nice reimagining of how this final act might have been created. 

The novel’s structure itself is interesting, with the Renaissance strand on the left-hand page and the modern strand on the right-hand page; at first, I wasn’t sure how to read the book – all the first part then all the second part, or alternate strands. I suspect that it can be left up to the reader how they choose to read it. I chose to read the first part in its entirety, then the second part, but I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has tried reading alternate chapters, to know whether this gives a different sense of the intertwined stories. 

The story rattles along at a fair pace, and there is a huge cast of characters to get to know alongside a vivid sense of how life was for Jewish communities in Europe during the Renaissance, which comes across very clearly. Indeed, there is much research and scholarship that has gone into this novel, and clearly this is a really important era and subject for the author, as the back cover tells us that she has an early music group and plays the music of Rossi herself, which is a lovely addendum to the book. 

About the reviewer
Dr Kim Wiltshire is a playwright and writer whose research involves theatre / writing for social change and arts for health. She is currently a British Academy Innovation Fellow and is a Reader and Programme Leader for Creative Writing at Edge Hill University.

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