Orpheus at Opera North: greater than the sum of its parts
(Grand Theatre, Leeds, Thursday 20 October 2022)
The myth of Orpheus was fundamental to the history of early opera: Peri’s Euridice is the earliest surviving opera and its performance in Florence in 1600 was attended by the Duke of Mantua - Monteverdi’s employer - and Alessandro Striggio, who would write the libretto for Monteverdi’s opera of 1607. The attraction of the myth, of course, was that the story was widely known and understood; Orpheus, as a musical practitioner, becomes a parable for the genre of opera itself, a union of words and music which gives voice to this drama about love and loss. No wonder composers have struggled with the myth’s ending, sometimes tragic, sometimes happy, and sometimes, as with Monteverdi’s later drafts, somewhere in between.
And how appropriate that Opera North and South Asian Arts UK (also Leeds-based) should choose the love of Orpheus and Eurydice to be the subject of a collaboration between them, one which turned out to be a true marriage of musical styles. ‘Monteverdi reimagined’, indeed. The production’s point of departure is the lovers’ wedding party in a suburban back garden sumptuously created by Leslie Travers. The sun is shining and the musicians sit arrayed in the flower beds, Western and Indian instruments intermingled. The production by Anna Himali Howard is as restrained as the musical pace, intimate and tender, allowing the beauty of it all to speak for itself. Laurence Cummings presides discretely from the harpsichord, while the Indian classical musicians perform the music of Jasdeep Singh Degun, who directs from the sitar.
Thus it was that early baroque and Indian classical music came to be heard cheek by jowl. Right from the start, the role of La Musica was divided between Deepa Nair Rasiya and Amy Freston singing in their respective musical styles. Likewise, nymphs and shepherds were taken by the operatic quartet of Claire Lees, Frances Gregory, Xavier Hetherington and Simon Grange with contrasting contributions from their Asian counterparts, Sanchita Pal, Chiranjeeb Chakraborty and Vijay Rajput - the latter two paired as shepherds who entertained us in an ornament competition. If early baroque opera delights in the contrast between recitative and aria, then in this Orpheus we are treated to even greater contrasts of cultural styles, the western gently extroverted alternating with the Indian, soft and introverted. Sometimes they tellingly combine or cross-fertilize each other.
Orpheus himself - even he played the violin - was tenderly sung by Nicholas Watts, excelling in his virtuosic rendering of Possente Spirito. The Messenger at the end of Act 2 was passionately sung by Kezia Bienek and the Australian bass Dean Robinson was a sonorous Pluto. Those were the main roles taken by the ‘Western’ singers performing Monteverdi’s music. The Indian cast sang mostly in their mother tongues, so as well as Striggio’s Italian we heard Urdu, Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, Punjabi and Bengali. For them, standing rather than sitting, acting and projecting emotions and voices into a large theatre would have been outside their usual comfort zones. They stood their ground, so to speak, and drew us into their enchanting musical world. Eurydice (the young Tamil singer Ashnaa Sasikaran), Hope (Yarlinie Thanabalasingham) and Prosperina (Chandra Chakraborty) were performed by experts in the Carnatic traditions of southern India. Instrumentalists in the Hindustani traditions also took major singing roles: Kaviraj Singh is a santoor player who also sang Caronte and Kirpal Singh Panesar provided the evening’s deus ex machina simultaneously singing and playing the role of Apollo.
The result of this cultural exchange was utterly compelling: the audience was entranced. The company’s success reflects on the richness of talent in today’s society and hopefully the subsequent tour will be extended to encompass the capital and other cities. It’s worth shouting out that projects like this can help to ensure the renewal and survival of opera by spreading the message that the genre is infinitely versatile and inclusive. This was a one-off, though, surely impossible to repeat. Instead, the next step must be to commission artists with feet in both musical traditions to create a true blend of contemporary, rather than historical, cultural styles. Clearly, this project was no competition between sound-worlds but a sensitive convergence of musical cultures which succeeded more than anyone probably dared to imagine. But, it has to be said, the experience was predominantly a musical one. The theatrical and dramatic experiments of the early baroque were largely overshadowed by the intricacies of Indian music which, while opening up new aural vistas, evolved at its own pace. When the evening’s climax is an enthralling duet between two percussionists (Shahbaz Hussain on tabla, RN Prakash on ghatam (water jug)) you know that Monteverdi has taken a back seat to something very different - and rather more fun.
Music by Claudio Monteverdi and Jasdeep Singh Degun
Musical arrangements by Ashok Gupta
Original Italian text by Alessandro Striggio
Translations by Ustad Dharambir Singh MBE and Shahbaz Hussain
Additional translations by Chandra Chakraborty, Amarjit Dhami, Saikrishnakumar Rangachari, Deepa Nair Rasiya
Sangeet (Music) - Deepa Nair Rasiya
La Musica (Music) - Amy Freston
Charavaaho (Shepherd) - Xavier Hetherington
Apsaro (Nymph) - Sanchita Pal
Charavaaho (Shepherd) - Chiranjeeb Chakraborty
Orpheus - Nicholas Watts
Eurydice - Ashnaa Sasikaran
Charavaaho (Shepherd) - Vijay Rajput
Charavaaho (Shepherd) - Laurence Cummings
Apsaro (Nymph) - Claire Lees
Charavaaho (Shepherd) - Simon Grange
Apsaro (Nymph) - Frances Gregory
Silvia (The Messenger)- Kezia Bienek
Caronte - Kaviraj SinghNambikkai (Hope) - Yarlinie Thanabalasingam
Proserpina - Chandra Chakraborty
Pluto - Dean Robinson
Apollo - Kirpal Singh Panesar
The creative team
Music Director/Harpsichord - Laurence Cummings
Music Director/Sitar - Jasdeep Singh Degun
Director - Anna Himali Howard
Set and Costume Designer - Leslie Travers
Lighting Designer - Jackie Shemesh
Choreographer - Urja Desai Thakore
Sound Designer - Camilo Tirado
Touring to Newcastle (05 Nov), Nottingham (12 Nov) and Salford (19 Nov) and available on OperaVision from 31 October
Composer and musician