Composers: Claudio Monteverdi and Jasdeep Singh Degun
Director: Anna Himali Howard
Musical Directors: Laurence Cummings and Jasdeep Singh Degun
This is the production that surely couldn’t work: taking Monteverdi’s original, using some parts, replacing others with Indian classical music by Jasdeep Singh Degun, a cast pretty much evenly split between musical backgrounds and an 18-piece instrumental ensemble in which sitar, santoor and tabla rubbed shoulders with violin, harpsichord and cello. In fact, when the curtain rose on a large English back garden, houses in the background, with the band perched on the rockeries, in a colourful variety of costumes (the Opera North musicians in suits) and they launched into a version of Monteverdi’s overture to the pulse of Indian rhythms, the audience knew that they were on a winner!
Opera North’s production, in collaboration with SAA-uk, follows Monteverdi’s librettist, Alessandro Striggio, while doubling up on some elements, Amy Freston’s bright-voiced La Musica in contrast with Deepa Nair Rasiya’s more intense Sangeet – also Music. The difference is the setting, a homely garden that transforms into the Land of the Dead (minus houses) after Kezia Bienek’s dramatic intrusion as the Messenger, bringing news of Eurydice’s death from a snake bite. Then at the end, as Orpheus seeks the secret of life from Apollo (the splendid Kirpal Singh Panesar, taking leave from instrumental duties), the backcloth falls and again we are in English suburbia – with the gods there!
There are several learned articles in the programme on the relationship between the baroque and Indian music, but in truth this revelatory performance makes so many things clear. The harpsichord continuo so prominent in baroque music finds a reflection in the many string instruments of India – and the drone is a feature of each music. Much of the music takes the form of static and elaborately decorated recitatives (or the equivalent Indian term) – and, if you think those long-necked instruments are all Indian, what about the theorbo, adding spice to the music?
Anna Himali Howard’s production is not like a typical opera production. Entries are often silent and inconspicuous, she is quite happy to leave characters motionless on stage, there is a sense of stillness and of ritual. And this communicates itself to the audience, listening in rapt silence, with a palpable intake of breath when Orpheus turns round. The release of emotion at the end is – to use a word that frequently butts its way into discussion of this Orpheus – amazing.
It’s very much an ensemble piece, with co-music director Laurence Cummings singing a part, Jasdeep Singh Begun sitting in the band and band members playing parts, then scurrying back to their instruments. However, mention must be made of Chiranjeeb Chakraborty and Vijay Rajput’s competitive shepherds, Kaviraj Singh’s blazing Caronte (a wonderfully tense scene with Orpheus accompanied by virtuoso sitar), Yarlinie Thanabalasingam’s intensely sympathetic Hope and Dean Robinson (Pluto) and Chandra Chakraborty (Proserpina)’s duelling lovingly for Eurydice to be free.
Ashnaa Sasikaran is poised as Eurydice, the impact of her disappearance back to the Land of the Dead owing much to her grace of movement. And Nicholas Watts as Orpheus is perfect, his tenor secure and clear, without excessive emotional overtones, his occasional forays into Indian music carried off with aplomb.
This is one of those amazing evenings when it’s impossible to work out who did what to make it such a triumph. With apologies, therefore, to the ones left out, let’s give thanks to Laurence Cummings and Jasdeep Singh Degun for getting (and keeping) this show on the road, Leslie Travers for wonderful designs atmospherically lit by Jackie Shemesh and no fewer than six people who worked on translations. The one thing missing from the programme is who had the original idea – they must have been astonished when Opera North said yes!
Runs until Saturday 22nd October 2022, before continuing on tour.