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Thursday 24 January 2013

L'Orfeo at Silent Opera

Trinity Bouy Wharf

I'm a Monteverdi fan. It's such compelling theatre and beautiful music that I wonder that he got so much right in an art form that basically didn't exist yet. As always, the surprising thing about genius is that it's surprising! L'Orfeo is his first attempt, and is opera's first masterpiece.

Director Daisy Evans and designer Katherine Heath have given the opera a fantasy treatment by setting it in a sort of sci fi future/past/alternate reality. Society in the fields of Thrace has descended into some sort of ultra decadent orgiastic paradise, where people move like panthers and have sex a lot, wearing either zany make up or slightly fetishistic flashing harnesses. Dionysus/Bacchus is in vogue. But ardent Orfeo and his beautiful and coquettish bride Euridice seem more adjusted in their radiant happiness, or at least more open to each other than the narcissism and hedonism that is the norm for the rest of society. But their happiness doesn't last, and Euridice is struck suddenly dead by lighting. Thus starts Orfeo's quest to save her. 

There are lots of nice touches, and some striking visual elements - the room of glass and candles that the mystic Caronte has made for himself, and the inverted church for Plutone, king of Hades. Nice too is the idea that the underworld characters speak Italian, contrasting with the the English language "overworld" translation that frames the central underworld episode. Other choices are less clear such as why Euridice is played by an actress (with offstage singing), or how Orfeo manages to get past the forbidding Caronte and slip into Hades.

After the abortive rescue attempt, it finishes in pure noise as voices shout and argue over whether to save him or damn him, and in an ending akin to the original libretto he is carried off by the demented denizens of the fields of Thrace we met previously (a less crapulent, more hipsterish version of the amusingly sinister female drunks "the Bacchantes" as in the original) where presumably he'll be torn to shreds by violence and lovemaking. No Deus ex Machina in sight!

The cast are uniformly very good, all young professionals of a high standard. The particular standout is William Berger's Orfeo with his powerful and easy tenor that he is able to smoothly fine down to a thread for more intimate moments. Of the rest, Emilie Renard was particularly engaged and communicative as the overwrought Messaggiera. The score for L'Orfeo is so open to interpretation that every production sounds radically different from every other one, so it's often difficult to compare performances. The instruments that Monteverdi lists at the beginning of the score (though doesn't mark directly onto the lines of music) offer occasion for such extreme colour and contrast, not to mention beauty, that I always want them to be as dramatically exploited as possible, but this was a gentler, more restrained sound picture than I am used to, partly live and partly pre recorded (specially) as it was. As is hinted at above, the translated libretto takes several liberties with the original text, but it flows well and sounds natural when sung.

Why is it called Silent Opera I hear you scream. Calm down. The idea is akin to a silent disco where sound is relayed to you via cordless headphones and there is no ambient noise in the room. Here, the main body of the orchestra is present only in your headphones. Singers sing live with mics and so they are also beamed into your ears, but also, the five (!) continuo players also play live and are added into the recorded mix. I actually removed my headphones for quite a lot of it, because the natural sound of the voices and instruments blending was much more pleasing than the direct headphone noise. I didn't really understand why we were using them at all - yes, it means you can have pre recorded orchestral tracks which makes opera much cheaper and is less space prohibitive, but why not just get some good speakers mounted on the ceiling to do the same job as the headphones? I didn't feel the technology was really being utilised for what it immediately suggests, which is an emancipation from being in one indoors location, and also from the architectural exigencies of satisfying acoustics. The quay has such stunning views that it seemed a shame not to have that sense of space and the infinite sky above us.

I realise it's early days (this is only Silent Opera's third production) and that they're still working out how best to use their idea, but I was just surprised that it was put to such limited and spurious use. The other problem is that it's often hard to see what's going on as most things happen at ground level and within touching distance of the audience, which are always several people deep. It's also in the round, so you only get to see the singers's faces for half of any scene, and sometimes not even that - I noticed lots of people's concentration flagging as we were sometimes physically denied the ability to stay engaged with the action. The exciting din of the final scene was strangely anticlimactic for about two thirds of the audience as it all occurred on the floor and most people couldn't see what was going on. Sort of basic stuff to go wrong, and even the director chose to stand on the staging to see what was happening.

Another small matter for grumbling. I'm not a huge fan of direct audience interaction, because apart from it being uninvited and invasive, by breaking the fourth wall it draws attention to the absurdity of the action and of operatic conventions; it also interrupts our suspended disbelief as we struggle with the annoyance of it and on a subconscious level in how we try to make sense of what it might mean that we are interacting with these strange characters. If we're meant to be part of the drama and feel actively involved, then why are we so inert and lacking in dramatic importance in the story? Are we encouraged to interfere with the action? If so then maybe we could have been told at the beginning. I can imagine some operas where it could work well (e.g. Otello Act 3, or Act 2 of La Boheme, where we could be complicit in the action) but here it seemed out of place, or at least requiring of a more creative solution. I understand that we needed to be ushered through to the different sections, but being compelled by our own brains to move because it was obvious that action was going on elsewhere and we were so keen to find out what was going to happen would have been more interesting and engaging than being pushed. It only takes a few to lead a herd!

Still, technological gripes aside, it's a fun evening of opera, with lovely moments and overall doesn't bore, though I wished it had been more adventurous and boundary pushing, like it claims to be in the advertising. Lots of the audience were young which is a good sign, and what's great is that they're getting the full operatic experience with full orchestra. I am certainly keen to see Silent Opera's next effort.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting to read what George Hall had to say in the Guardian:

    And Kieron Quirke for the Evening Standard:

    We agree on most points it seems. My skepticism is revealed in less blunt terms, but the "drama school" sweeping lizard/panther dances for the Bachae/Bacchantes are a real irritation and such a clichée - I don't know how many times I've seen this in opera productions.