Composers: Claudio Monteverdi and Jasdeep Singh Degun
Original libretto: Alessandro Striggio
The myth of Orpheus is the subject of the earliest surviving opera and Opera North pay tribute to its unique status by offering a variety of interpretations in their current season. Tonight’s show is by far the most radical combining Monteverdi’s baroque score with Indian classical music.
There are risks to exposing audiences to fresh cultural experiences, when Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar played at George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh he acknowledged the warm applause before explained he had only been tuning. Opera North guard against such Philistinism. Indian music uses the human voice as an instrument – hitting and holding notes- as well as a means of communicating lyrics. The audience is forewarned when the singers are providing such atmospheric backing as the surtitles indicate a musical note rather than provide lyrics.
There is no doubt Orpheus is intended as a cultural event rather than simply a night out. Both Jasdeep Singh Degun, who adapted the opera, and co-music director Laurence Cummings take active roles onstage playing, respectively, sitar and harpsichord as well as conducting and contributing vocals.
The storyline conforms to tradition. Newly married Orpheus (Nicholas Watts) is devasted when his bride Eurydice (Ashnaa Sasikaran) is bitten by a snake and dies. Distraught, he bargains his way into the underworld where his musical skills persuade Pluto to allow him to return home with Eurydice. But Pluto imposes a condition which Orpheus finds hard to obey.
Director Anna Himali Howard stages the opera as if the incredible developments (and more significantly the combining of different cultures) are everyday events. The wedding party takes place in a suburban back garden (the visible washing line is a nice touch) with the orchestra performing as a wedding band. The move toward tragedy is signalled by Jackie Shemesh’s lighting shifting into a bruised threatening twilight.
As part of their tributes Opera North is also producing Orfeo ed Euridice, a different version of the Orpheus myth. Although that opera is promoted as a ‘concert staging’ it feels more like a full performance albeit one stripped down to the bare necessities. The various elements of Orpheus, on the other hand, are so disjointed it feels like a concert rather than full production.
The Italian baroque elements are precise and highly disciplined while the Indian aspects are looser with a sense of improvisation. It is fascinating to appreciate the subtle intonations of the cast trading notes and to listen to the percussionists duelling, but it contributes little to the plot. There is no sense of urgency or of impending crisis, so it becomes a technical exercise in expertise with a degree of indulgence.
It is a static production with little movement. In the first act all significant events – including the death of Eurydice- take place off-stage and are reported in song. Urja Desai Thakore’s choreography is highly restrained, in the underworld Ashnaa Sasikaran performs stylised complex hand gestures rather than any dramatic movements that might offer cathartic release.
It is hard to form an emotional connection to the current production of Orpheus so, while a major cross-cultural event, it remains a show to be coolly appreciated rather than warmly enjoyed.
Reviews on 19 November 2022