United Kingdom Longborough Festival Opera’s Young Artists Production – Gluck, Orfeo ed Euridice: Young Artists and Orchestra / Jeremy Silver (conductor). King’s College London’s Greenwood Theatre, London, 4.8.2017. (JPr)
Director – Maria Jagusz
Designer – Richard Studer
Lighting Designer – Dan Saggars
Assistant Director – Ralf Higgins
Choreographer – Mark Smith
Orfeo – Hanna-Liisa Kirchin
Euridice – Nazan Fikret
Amore – He Wu
Chorus of Longborough Young Artists as Shepherds, Nymphs, Furies, Demons of the Underworld, Heroes and Heroines of the Elysium, Companions of Orfeo
Dancers as Blessed Spirits – Jordan Scrase & Emily Smith
According to Greek and Roman writers, Orpheus (or Orfeo, or Orphée) was the son of a Muse and a Thracian prince, and so neither mortal nor a god. He received the gift of music from his mother and his lyre could move rocks and change the direction of rivers. When he marries the love of his life, Eurydice, she dies immediately after their wedding because of a snake bite. Orpheus journeys into the underworld, plays for the gods, and asks for Eurydice’s return. The gods cannot resist Orpheus’s music and allow Eurydice to come back, but with one important condition: he must not look back at her until they reach the upper world again. Things do not go to plan and Orpheus turns to her too early and Eurydice disappears back into darkness and he is left alone. Orpheus wanders the world in despair playing his lyre, until he meets his end through frenzied Maenads who tear him limb from limb.
It is not surprising that this story – juxtaposing the power of love with the power of music – should appeal to composers. The first version was Claudio Monteverdi’s 1607 L’Orfeo, which combined music and poetry – in what was an unfamiliar way at that time – to bring this Orpheus myth to dramatic life. The most famous operatic version is Gluck’s 1762 Orfeo ed Euridice which Longborough’s Young Artists brought to South London’s Greenwood Theatre. As a concession to what audiences of the time demanded, Gluck provided a happy ending as the god of love, Amore, revives Euridice and reunites the lovers. Gluck was never ‘happy’ himself with this and bemoaned how ‘To adapt the fable to the usage of our theatres, I was forced to alter the climax.’
Gluck’s Orfeo broke all the current operatic conventions. These – amongst others – were that there should be no chorus and embellished arias from several characters: Gluck had the chorus as integral to the opera and only three characters. Orfeo’s first appearance does not involve an aria to show off his – originally alto castrato or high tenor – voice but with three mournful repeats of ‘Euridice!’ sung over a choral lament. The story unfolds with an intrinsic simplicity and some basically sorrowful music, accompanied by an orchestra throughout, to make it a prototype music drama. All this was revolutionary for eighteenth-century opera and everything has a cumulative effect which suggests it is better – as it is often performed – without an interval. When this production was first put on at Longborough recently there was one and it appears to have been as long as the entire opera!
This is one of those events essentially critic-proof because its intentions are so worthy. Longborough’s website informs us how their ‘Young Artist productions promote talented emerging artists at the beginning of their career. We work with emerging singers, orchestra players, stage management, and designers, supported by Longborough’s experienced management and technical teams. For the last couple years, Baroque music has been the chosen repertoire for our Young Artist production. The lightness and flexibility required for Baroque music is a good opportunity for younger voices to showcase their abilities yet avoid the danger of singing heavy roles too soon in a career. We have been delighted by the support shown from our audiences for the Young Artist production and for the Baroque repertoire.’
I have witnessed how wonderfully Longborough Festival Opera has developed since 1998 and for evidence click here for my review of their recent Tristan und Isolde. On their rare forays to London it would good if they could showcase, not only their Young Artists, but the other great work they are doing in the Cotswolds.
There are really only two ways to present Orfeo ed Euridice in 2017, either by paying homage to its neoclassicism or by updating it. In Richard Studer’s simple designs – mirroring the simplicity of Gluck’s opera – we see a circular opening within a square which Studer suggests represents ‘a container for Euridice’s mortal remains, transforming into a portal to Hades, before its final reincarnation at Euridice’s resurrection into the temple of love.’ He continued – in the programme – discussing that since ‘dance and movement’ is so important ‘The costumes of the chorus had to be fluid, sculptural and with the ability through simple changes, to transform them from the mortal to the stygian Furies and Blessed Spirits of the underworld. Immediately we were looking at images of Bollywood … Each of the three principal characters carries one key element associated with them … For Orfeo, the golden lyre; for Amore, the bow; and for Euridice a headdress of golden leaves symbolising her position as oak nymph and daughter of Apollo, as told in the Greek rendering of the tale.’ There is much use of lengths of ribbon which, when it involved the two dancers, had hints of circus acts I have seen; though when it involved the entire ensemble seemed like a representation of the Rota Fortuna or ‘Wheel of Fortune’. There is some suggestion this had more to do with the strings of Orfeo’s lyre and these strings – or are they heart strings? – completed the stage picture we saw, along with, a raised dais and two staircases.
This Orfeo ed Euridice was directed by the singer Maria Jagusz and worked reasonably well; though the performance was at its best when Orfeo and Euridice were left completely on their own for their duet ‘Vieni, appaga il tuo consorte’/’Viens, suis un époux’). Too be truthful, the entire performance was a tale of two halves and it didn’t really fire in the first half, though after the interval – with everyone perhaps now more relaxed – we saw what these Young Artists and Longborough are capable of. I particularly enjoyed the dancing of Jordan Scrase and Emily Smith and although Mark Smith’s choreography initially looked a little familiar, the final duet was a very effective summation of the opera’s plot, before – at the very end – the chorus celebrates how love has triumphed.
It was the small valiant chorus of 12 that was probably the best thing about this Orfeo ed Euridice and this bodes well for the ‘choral challenge’ of Der fliegende Holländer next summer at Longborough. Hanna-Liisa Kirchin sang with heart on her sleeve emotion to carry the opera as Orfeo. Though she did not always sound at ease with the role, her ‘Che farò senza Euridice? was the grief-stricken highlight it must be. Also showing that they might be names to look out for in future years, Nazan Fikret was an affecting Euridice and He Wu brought much charm to Amore in the little Gluck gives her. As mentioned above she was shown as Cupid and her vivid red costume provided the only real splash of colour the entire evening.
Jeremy Silver conducted a well-paced and – appropriate for the story – a spirited account of Gluck’s score. The orchestra did not really come into its own until the second half and as the drama unfolded they provided a suitably understated accompaniment.
For further information about how to support Longborough Festival Opera (which receives no public subsidy) click here.