Opera North’s new production of ‘Orpheus’ is hugely ambitious, very admirable and creates an exciting new landscape for musical cultures to meet and learn from each other. As a production, however, it seemed somewhat adrift, lacking a direction, unsure if it was a concert or a full performance. I was left somewhat bemused by these opposing factors.
This new imagining of Orpheus, one of the oldest operas, came about when Opera North approached SAA-uk with the idea of bringing together the European baroque and Indian classical traditions. Co-Music Directors Jasdeep Singh Degun, currently Artist in Residence at Opera North, and baroque specialist Laurence Cummings, have come together with open minds and hearts to try something new and challenging.
With the music at the centre of the project, it is entirely fitting that the musicians are on-stage, a living, breathing part of the story, and often taking on singing roles as well as playing their instruments. I always love to see an orchestra, it helps one to identify which instrument is making which sound, and adds to the understanding of the piece. With Indian instruments being used, most of which are unrecognisable to my Western experience, it is absolutely essential, and fascinating.
The framing for this updated version of the story is an inter-racial marriage between Orpheus and Eurydice, and the setting the back garden of a normal semi-detached house. In updating the story, and incorporating the Indian traditions, this works beautifully as it gives a natural environment in which all are already invested in joining and understanding the different heritages.
The garden is a near magical space of greenery, lanterns and fairy-lights, with ‘decking’ used to accommodate the musicians – interesting to note the western musicians all on chairs whilst the Indian musicians are clearly comfortable on the floor! Rather than moving to a different scene for the ‘Land of the Dead’, the garden simply changes to become a ‘floating’ island in a sea of black. This is an interesting way of conveying that, in grief, the world around you may remain the same, but appears very distant and changed.
The singing, from both traditions, is highly accomplished and beautiful. Not having seen Orpheus before in its ‘traditional’ form, it is hard to know what, if anything, is left out, but the incorporation of the Indian music works seamlessly. It is revealed as highly complex, with a use of vocal techniques so flexible and subtly intonated, it is difficult to grasp how it works. In a fascinating ‘riff-off’ between Orpheus (Nicholas Watts) and Charavaaho (Chiranjeeb Chakraborty and Vijay Rajput), the more formal, controlled style of western singing appears to be rather stiff and restrictive, against the more improvisational, fluid form of the Indian tradition, despite the assured talents of Watts.
Ashnaa Sasikaran as Eurydice has a deep, rich vocal tone which perfectly suits the rather mysterious character, who tragically dies shortly after the wedding. Her expressive dancing further emphasises her magnetism and heightens the impact of the tragedy. The sinuous hand-movements of expression of the Indian women, in particular Chandra Chakraborthy as Proserpina, lend a real depth.
Kaviraj Singh as Caronte is a stand-out performance, combining a warm, rich singing tone with bags of character, and even humour, in his refusal to allow Orpheus to enter the underworld. This character feels more fully three dimensional than most of the others, who are generally directed to stand and sing in different positions, which is why it feels more concert than full production.
The challenge Opera North set itself in producing this unique version of Orpheus has been more than met, and will, I suspect, lead to further experimentation in the future – and hurrah for that, because this has surely expanded the mind and experience of all the audiences attending. That aside, as a production, it lacked performance and impact for me, and in not connecting with the characters emotionally, I felt no journey had been made.