Opera North (Orpheus)
Theatre Royal, Nottingham
November 12 2022
Review: William Ruff
East and west combine to produce a thrilling artistic synergy
Making an opera is a bit like baking a cake. The outcome is always dependent on what ingredients are used and how they are mixed together. When you go to see opera live on stage you realise that the music on those favourite CDs constitutes just one of those ingredients. When the others (sets, costumes, lighting etc) become part of the equation, the total effect can be thrilling – or infuriating, if what you see clashes violently with what you hear.
One of the exciting things about live opera is that it involves the audience in risk. Possibly you would never think of combining those ingredients yourself, but the fact that someone else has dared to risk money, time and talent in pursuit of something utterly new can be exhilarating. And when the result is as ground-breaking and emotionally involving as Opera North’s Orpheus it’s hardly surprising that the audience stands up and cheers at the final curtain.
Orpheus has been a long project for Opera North and for South Asian Arts. The idea was to take one of the earliest of all operas, Monteverdi’s Orfeo (written in 1607), and to produce a music drama that combines western baroque with Indian classical music. Cultural fainthearts would have thought this impossible, as the two traditions seem on the surface to be (literally) continents apart. However, many people living in the UK today grow up amid a diversity of musical experiences. And what Orpheus demonstrates so emphatically is what they have in common rather than what divides them.
The plot is very simple. In the first Act we are in the garden of a suburban house at the wedding of Orpheus and his bride Eurydice, a joyful coming together of English and Indian heritages. Everything goes swimmingly until disaster strikes. Eurydice is bitten by a poisonous snake (!) whilst she nips out to pick flowers – and dies. In the second Act Orpheus descends to the Underworld to see if he can get his beloved back. He’s told he can – as long as he doesn’t look at her on the return journey. Of course, he can’t resist – and so loses her for ever.
The opening stage picture is full of life and colour. We’re in the highly realistic garden of a (presumably Leeds?) semi, bursting with flowers and shrubs. (This is the only opera I have ever attended when one of the creative team is described as the Head Gardener!) Everyone is wearing their best wedding attire, the Indian costumes particularly gorgeous to behold. On either side of the stage are the musicians: an eye-catching spectacle of western baroque and traditional Indian instruments: sitar rubbing shoulders with harpsichord, tablas with violins. Right from the start Monteverdi is fused with new music composed by Jasdeep Singh Degun. It takes the ear a little time to adjust to the unfamiliar (especially the Indian use of microtones) but it’s one of the miracles of this production that very quickly it all begins to sound perfectly natural, one tradition melding into the other.
The singing is very strong throughout: particularly Nicholas Watts as a stylish, sweet-voiced Orpheus. Laurence Cummings is the director of the Monteverdi band, coaxing some lovely sounds from them and achieving a satisfying balance between subtle baroque restraint and the irresistibly exotic sounds produced by the Indian ensemble. Extraordinary instrumental moments (such as the virtuoso ‘duel’ for tabla and ghatam) provide some of the evening’s most memorable moments.
Orpheus is a project four years in the making and is clearly the result of much thought, imagination and fruitful collaboration between a huge team of creative artists. The result isn’t just something which pulses with energy: it reforges elements from two traditions to create a music drama that excites and moves in equal measure.
Deepa Nair Rasiya
SILVIA (THE MESSENGER)
Kirpal Singh Panesar
Viola David Aspin
Lirone Emilia Benjamin
Theorbo Sergio Bucheli
Cello Daniel Bull
Sitar Jasdeep Singh Degun
Bass Damian Rubido Gonzalez
Tabla Shahbaz Hussain
Viola Katie Jarvis
Violin Andrew Long
Esraj & Tar Shehnai Kirpal Singh Panesar
Mridangam, Ghatam & Kanjira R.N.Prakash
Violin Cristina Ocaña Rosado
Santoor Kaviraj Singh
Harp & Swarmandal Celine Saout
Flute, Bansuri, Murali, Violin & Viola Vijay Venkat
Percussion Mark Wagstaff
Trumpet Adam Wood
Music Director & Harpsichord Laurence Cummings
Music Director & Sitar Jasdeep Singh Degun
Assistant Conductor & Harpsichord Ashok Gupta
Director Anna Himali Howard
Set and Costume Designer Leslie Travers
Lighting Designer Jackie Shemesh
Choreographer Urja Desai Thakore
Sound Designer Camilo Tirado
Translation and Music Consultants Ustad Dharambir Singh Mbe & Shahbaz Hussain
Associate Director Simone Ibbett-Brown
Additional translation Chandra Chakraborty, Amarjit Dhami, Saikrishnakumar Rangachari & Deepa Nair Rasiya