Another week, another Orpheus. You would think I would be getting a bit bored by the story by now after having reviewed so many takes on it in so short a time, but each has put its own twist on the tale making it seem fresh every time.
The story started life as a myth in both Greek and Roman traditions so there is no definitive version and, as with so many myths, it is more of a parable teaching us a lesson about life and, in this case, how we deal with loss. It sounds deep but isn’t really because it is open to individual interpretation, not only by the reader or audience, but also by the writers and composers who have taken up the story.
Should you wish to scroll through my recent articles you will see that there is an up-to-date interpretation by the rapper and beatbox artist, Testament, called Orpheus in the Record Shop and a joint production between Opera North and South Asian Arts simply called Orpheus. Those two versions, along with this one, couldn’t be more different in their staging and the way in which the story unfolds.
Orfeo Ed Euridice is described as ‘A Dramatic Concert performance’ which means that the music is presented using just the main characters from the full opera on a conventional stage with minimal scenery, while still utilising the full Orchestra and Chorus of Opera North. Although bereft of elaborate sets the singers perform in character and interact with each other so as to add to the flow of the piece. I found this to be a very effective way of presenting the work but, my goodness, did it put a burden on the singers.
The running time was an hour and three-quarters including an interval half way through, meaning that the evening flew by. At least it did for me but for Polly Leech, who was playing Orfeo, it must have felt like a lifetime. She was on stage for the whole of the first half and a vast majority of the second, with only short intervals between her arias. She was absolutely magnificent, all the more impressive as this was her only performance in the part, the role for the rest of the tour being filled by Alice Coote. Fflur Wyn sang the part of Euridice showing why she is such a favourite of Opera North followers, and Daisy Brown was Amore, who, although in a smaller part, was spot on.
It goes without saying, although I won’t let it, that the Orchestra of Opera North, conducted by Antony Hermus, was up to its usual high standard, as was the magnificent Chorus of Opera North under Chorus Master Oliver Rundell.
I only had a couple of quibbles about the production; firstly that the first time Amore appears she is in one of the boxes in the auditorium which obscured from the view of quite a few of the audience, I managed to get a slight glimpse from my seat in the stalls. Secondly, the programme defines a concert performance as one having the orchestra on stage, but this was not possible given the number of choristers already there. I have no problem with not being able to see the musicians, as long as I can hear them, what did annoy me, however, as the evening progressed, was that the people I could see clearly were those which I didn’t want to, viz, my fellow audience members. No offence here, but it is difficult to lose yourself in the atmosphere of a performance when those around you are in plain sight, that is the reason theatres turn off the house lights for shows. The problem was a spotlight positioned near one of the boxes in ‘the gods’ which was there apparently to illuminate the orchestra pit in front of the stage, but whose beam was so diffuse that it also lit up most of the front stalls. This would be bad enough at the best of times but when the stage is surrounded by black curtains to represent Hell, the spell is ruined.
I have slightly misled you in the last paragraph as there was one musician on stage during the first half, and that was the harpist, Céline Saout. I had seen the harp in place since the beginning of the concert and thought it looked incongruous in the setting of Hell, as it is an instrument normally associated with Heaven. I am beginning to come to terms with the afterlife now though, as, if this is the place to where I will be consigned, and the harp is played as beautifully, I will probably be better off than those ‘upstairs’, the choir will be far superior too. I also imagine being able to recognise far more of the audience than I did last night if the same bloomin’ spotlight is used.
This production was a total reversal of Orpheus. It began at a funeral rather than a wedding and ended happily rather than tragically, Orpheus was forgiven for looking back and everyone lived happily ever after. That is not a spoiler as it is in the synopsis in the programme. You see what I meant at the start about being able to interpret the source myth to fit your own mindset.
Taken as a concert I found the evening to be very enjoyable but wish I had been able to go to Huddersfield to see the full opera staging so that I could have done the old ‘compare and contrast’ thing. I suppose that it is just a case of FOMO.
Should you not be a regular operagoer I would recommend you pop along and see this concert as you can concentrate on the music without the distraction of the action. As usual, a translation is displayed on monitors. Gluck’s work also includes one of the most beautiful, and famous, arias in the whole of opera, Che faró senza Euridice, which you might know as What is Life?’ Check it out here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JjOMFAskh5Q
Orfeo Ed Euridice is at Leeds Grand Theatre on Friday 28th October, and then goes on to Theatre Royal, Newcastle on Friday 4th November, Theatre Royal Nottingham on Wednesday 9th November and The Lowry, Salford Quays on Friday 18th November.
Depending on location there are tickets available from a tenner. No, the chap who does the Go Compare ads hasn’t got a job at Opera North Box Office, you really can see something this wonderful for just £10 – so why don’t you?
For more details and to book, please go to https://www.operanorth.co.uk/whats-on/orfeo-ed-euridice-2022/
Featured image provided by Opera North. All photographs by Justin Slee. Sadly there is none available showing Polly Leech.