Pocket Opera’s Enterprising Orfeo Woos Young Audiences

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Gluck, Orfeo ed Euridice: Soloists, Orpheus and Eurydice Chorus, Philip Voldman (musical director),  Central St Martins College of Art and Design, London, 21.1.2014 (MB)

Orfeo – Paul Featherstone
Euridice – Pamela Hay
Amor – Joanna Foote

Mark Tinkler (director)
Alex Hopkins, Fridthjofur Thorsteinsson (lighting)
Maddy Rita Faye, DenisaDumitrescu, Vivian Lu, Anastasia Glazova, Lucia Riley, Isabella van Bracekel, Eimear Monaghan, Mathias Krajewski, Robin Soutar (set designs)
Robin Soutar, DenisaDumitrescu, Lucia Riley, Isabella van Braeckel, Eimear Monaghan (costumes)
Sivan Traub (violin)

No sooner had I bewailed the lack of Gluck this tercentenary year than I discovered an off-the-beaten track offering from English Pocket Opera Company. Doubtless our idiotic public relations companies would describe Orfeo as ‘iconic’ or some such nonsense; we might be better sticking with ‘one of the most important operas ever written’. But these performances at Central Saint Martins are better considered in the light of a four-phase project for children and young people at primary, secondary, and tertiary levels of education. The first phase has been and gone: EPOC performed Opera Blocks (a one-hour introduction to opera and to Orfeo) to over 10,000 children in Camden schools. This second is a ‘promenade’ version open to schools and to the public, in which we walked through the new Central Saint Martins building in King’s Cross, the eight scenes in different locations with designs – both sets and costumes – from members of the college. Phases three and four will be a performance at the Royal Albert Hall, involving choirs from 55 (!) Camden schools and their orchestras, aided by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and then finally work with schools to compose and produce their own versions.

Schoolchildren performed in the matinée performances; I attended an evening performance so did not have opportunity to hear them. However, there was a good deal to enjoy in what I heard. The heroic pianist/musical director Philip Voldman, assisted by violinist Sivan Traub, really brought those sections of the score performed to life. Some orchestral passages were to be heard via loudspeaker; there were some luscious strings to be heard there. However, the way in which these performances transcended the limitations of the upright pianos was creditable indeed. Pamela Hay’s Euridice was often touching, with a good sense of style. Joanna Foote’s Amor was finer still; I should be keen to hear more from her. Unfortunately, Paul Featherstone struggled stylistically and indeed intonationally as Orfeo. Nevertheless, Mark Tinkler’s direction of the characters, Furies included, held the attention throughout the various scenes. Perhaps an especial highlight was the use of claustrophobic theatre pit for Hades. Elysium, simply yet imaginatively designed upon the theatre stage itself, had a distinct sense of ‘place’ too: quite different from what had gone before and what was come. Excerpts from Die Zauberflöte and Orphée aux enfers framed the action, the former for the lovers’ wedding party at the start, the latter for curtain calls in the bar. Camden Music Service, Central Saint Martins, and EPOC deserve our praise for offering both reintroduction to and reminder of one of opera’s very greatest musical dramatists.

Mark Berry

Jim Pritchard was also invited by EPOC to attend a performance and adds a footnote to Mark Berry’s review above that he totally agrees with:
‘To Hell and Back’ was part of some earlier publicity for these performance – I suspect that was ironically aimed at the difficulties need to be overcome getting to Central St Martins ‘state-of-the-art’ new building in the middle of the massive regeneration of (probably) an originally ‘less-than-desirable’ part of King’s Cross. Once there, in the company of much youthful enthusiasm and artistic originality much fun was had by young and old present. To Mark Berry’s review I must add that apart from the three principal singers, pianist, director and stage manager who are professional and employed by EPOC – all participants in the show are employees/students of CSM, amateurs, students or placement students; with this production (by EPOC’s genial artistic director) mounted on a shoe-string budget as the company relies solely on the box office to fund their contribution to the project. Students apparently have to fund all materials for their own sets and costumes.
Perhaps for me there was too much moving about from one of the eight scenes to the next but all the young designers involved (some of whom turned up as characters in the show) are to be congratulated for what was achieved. It was all very effective and there was lots of gauze, from Maddy Rita Faye’s pastoral setting for ‘Orpheus’ homeland’, Vivian Lu’s mirrored ‘Wood’, an ingenious use of bubble wrap by Anastasia Glazova for the River Styx, Lucia Riley’s very atmospheric orchestra pit Hades that was all landfill-chic with added ghouls, Isabella Van Braeckel & Eimear Monaghan’s 1960ish Elysium with its hint of lava lamps …. to ‘Orpheus’s home’ once again for the Finale – this time featuring Robin Soutar’s imaginative puppet theatre. Indeed Philip Voldman (piano) and Sivan Traub (violin) expertly took care of the live music – with an early contribution from director Mark Tinkler’s accordion – and the small chorus was unexpectedly good. Everyone was very committed to makingOrpheus and Eurydice really come alive for its audience and Joanna Foote’s Amor and Pamela Hay’s (Eurydice) were promising singers with the proper style for Gluck, as Mark Berry comments. Paul Featherstone is apparently an EPOC veteran and certainly took part with great enthusiasm as Orpheus. He faced the difficulties of his music with some fortitude but I would have liked to have heard some younger talent given his chance to shine in the part as Ms Foote and Ms Hay had done in theirs.
The next phase of this project has been commissioned by Camden Music Service and involves choirs from all 55 Camden schools and their orchestras performing a short version of this opera at the Royal Albert Hall on 17th March 2014. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, who, together with EPOC are Camden Music’s main hub partners, is also involved. Timothy Kraemer (composer, cellist and arranger) is doing the orchestrations and members of the orchestra will be coaching the young orchestral players in baroque playing techniques. That should a wonderful occasion and for more news as it becomes available – as well as how to help fund EPOC’s future activities – go to their website http://www.epoc.co/.