Grimeborn: Orfeo ed Euridice/Zanetto – Arcola Outside, London

Reviewer: Jane Darcy

Composers: Gluck, Mascagni

Director: Lysanne van Overbeek

Musical Director: Lesley Anne Sammons

As part of Arcola’s Grimeborn 2021 season, Barefoot Opera presents a double bill of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice and Zanetto, a seldom-performed piece by Mascagni. In accordance with their philosophy, Barefoot strips down both works to the basics of body, breath, movement and sound. In doing so they bring out unexpected correspondences between these two operas, written nearly 150 years apart. Both are about love and death –which operas are not? But the focus here is on the power of songs to seduce and the pain of secrets and silence.

In pleasingly sustainable style, the simple stage set, with its boxes graffitied with the names of lovers, is used for both works. Chorus and orchestra are stripped out. In their place, a stylish duo – Lesley-Anne Sammons on keyboard and Lucy Mulgan on electric guitar and double bass – give a deliciously spirited interpretation of the music.

Two powerfully affecting soloists play both pairs of lovers. Emma Roberts’ thoughtful and melodic performance brings out both the anguished melancholy of the grieving Orfeo and the carefree exuberance of the young wanderer, Zanetto. Rich-voiced Lizzie Holmes makes an exquisite and dignified Euridice; her Silvia, in contrast, is an exploration of the intense anguish of self-denying love.

The simplicity of Gluck’s work, in particular his rejection of the complex music and subplots of opera seria, is what made Orfeo ed Euridice, first performed in 1762, such a ground-breaking work. In the familiar story, Orfeo is overwhelmed by grief at the loss of Euridice, killed by a serpent’s bite. His plight moves Amore (a charmingly playful performance by last-minute stand-in, the sweet-voiced Katie Blackwell) to intercede with the gods. Orfeo’s lyrical grief, his sympathetic identification with the Furies (“Like you I endure a thousand torments”) persuades them to allow his descent to Hades to recover Euridice. But their painful condition that he must not look back at her until she reaches earth is what brings about the inevitable tragedy.

The horrors of Hades are effectively conveyed by the soundscape of twanging guitar and eerie, stentorian breathing. Gluck’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits marks the transformation to the serenity of Elysium. We feel a jolt of tension when Euridice sings alone of her contendedness in eternal life. Will she want to be brought back to the pain of earthly existence? Joy at the reunion of the lovers is soon clouded by suffering. Euridice is increasingly tormented by Orfeo’s refusal to touch her, even to look at her. The work’s climax is the moment when Orfeo risks everything to take her once more in his arms and his fabulous aria about a life without his love, Che farò senza Euridice?.

The anguish of life without love is also Silvia’s lament at the opening of Zanetto. She has wealthy suitors aplenty, but can feel nothing for them. In her heart lies the memory of the young wandering minstrel, Zanetto. Finding him asleep in her garden, it is she who uses song to seduce. At first he is resistant – he loves his carefree life. Silvia, posing as a poor widow, sings persuasively of a little cottage home. Can he imagine a pretty girl waiting for him at an upstairs window, ready to throw a flower to him? Zanetto is taken with the idea of such a home – and such a sister.

This word, “sorella,” strikes misery in Silvia’s heart. Yet no sooner does Zanetto recognise the first stirrings of romantic love, than Silvia is filled with doubt and tries to repulse him. In such a short work, so abrupt a transition could seem unreal. But it is of course the theme of La Traviata and the focus here is on psychological intensity. Although set in Renaissance Italy, Zanetto, first performed in 1896, has something of the sexual anxieties of fin de siècle literature. Thomas Hardy will soon publish his poems written in the wake of his estranged wife’s death, which document his newly awakened love for her, love that he was unable to feel while she lived. Silvia, directing Zanetto on a path towards the dawn, can finally feel the bittersweet torments of having loved and lost.

Runs until 8 September 2021

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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