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Orpheus and Eurydice on the Banks of the Styx (1878) by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope
22 Jan 2014

Gluck: Orpheus and Eurydice

If you’re the sort of audience member who, when watching a performance of a play or opera, often experiences the urge to abandon your seat and join in with action, then the English Pocket Opera Company’s 2014 collaborative project will be just the thing for you.

Gluck: Orpheus and Eurydice

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Orpheus and Eurydice on the Banks of the Styx (1878) by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope

 

Presenting Gluck’s opera, Orpheus and Eurydice, EPOC invite you to metamorphose from passive onlooker to active participant, joining Orpheus as he journeys to the underworld to rescue his treasured Eurydice.

Led by Artistic Director, Mark Tinkler, The English Pocket Opera Company — now 20-years-old —has for the last 10 years been dedicated to creative educational projects with children young people, ranging from primary school children to undergraduates. Previous years have seen Hamlet, Don Giovanni, Dream (based on Purcell’s The Faerie Queen, a version of The Ring, Bluebeard’s and Hansel and Gretel performed in a variety of venues, from the Brady Centre in Tower Hamlets to The Cochrane Theatre.

The company produces what it describes as ‘Opera for, by and with children’. Feedback from participants and teachers has been extraordinarily positive, even eulogistic. And, the statistics too are impressive. In 2012, up to 50,000 children drawn from 250 schools in 2012 benefitted from the company’s multidisciplinary programmes; this year’s four-phase project exploring Christoph Willibald Gluck’s opera, Orpheus and Eurydice, will involve over 10,000 children from 55 schools, as well as talented designers studying the BA in Performance Design and Practice at Central St Martins (part of the University of the Arts London), amateur singers and musicians, along with some professional singers, musicians and theatre practitioners.

In many ways — in this anniversary year — Gluck’s ‘reform’ opera is a good choice for this ambulatory project: Gluck’s story is told simply and with clarity, a result of the composer’s aspirations to replace the obscure, complex plots of opera seria with a ‘noble simplicity’ — it’s a tale which is easy to follow while perambulating!

Summoned to our feet by Orpheus (Paul Featherstone) in fairground fashion — ‘Roll up, roll up, for the greatest story ever told!’ — we followed the hero, accompanied by accordion player, fiddler and assorted furry-masked creature, to the opening location. The performance begins, not with the solemn, grief-laden chorus of nymphs and shepherds but with the wedding banquet of Orpheus and Eurydice (Pamela Hay) which, somewhat wryly, takes place in the college canteen (design, Maddy Rita Faye). A trellis table is adorned with goblets, victuals and floral bouquets, around which twirl and spiral the newly-weds and assorted animal guests, occasionally sweeping members of the audience into their festive dance. A piano or keyboard is stationed at each venue; in this opening scene, Music Director and pianist Philip Voldman — who played with unflappable composure and fluency throughout —strikes up, not Gluck’s elegant measures, but the mesmerising melody of Papageno’s ‘Das klinget so herrlich’, which rings out, calming the beasts and reminding us of another operatic rescue mission in which the hero must stoically undergo trials and tribulations in order for his beloved to be restored to his arms.

Fatally bitten by a serpent, Eurydice is carried by Orpheus to her grave. Recorded music bridges the gap between some locations, and the transitions between live and recorded sound are smooth and natural. Denise Dumitrescu’s designs turn the CSM Studio Theatre into a Classical funeral vault; burnished gold, circular pillars of ruffled cloth ripple from ceiling to floor, enclosing distraught mourners, as the funeral chorus provide a dignified accompaniment to the noble grace of the setting. As the delicate columns tumble gracefully to the floor, and Orpheus lunges fruitlessly into the airy space, loss and absence are poignantly emphasised. Again, the onlookers are drawn into the action, beckoned to strew white lilies on Eurydice’s grave, as Orpheus desperately seeks his lost love through the mists of cloth which drape the entrance to the underworld.

Vivian Lu’s striking, expressionistic tree turns a corner of the Theatre Bar into the wood in which Orpheus becomes increasingly distressed — haunted obsessively by the vision and voice of his dead wife. From here, we progress to the banks of the Styx where Amor (Joanne Foote) appears, to instruct Orpheus to travel to Hades in order to plead with the Furies for Eurydice to be spared. In an appropriately bare, starkly lit corner, designer Anastasia Glazova’s white screens are opened to reveal Amor crouching in a bubble wrap cage; the bubble wrap is torn down to form a Styxian carpet leading us to Hell (the Platform Theatre Orchestra Pit) — although as we trod the watery path, paying the beastly Charon by dropping badges into his mouth, the percussive popping produced a rather unfortunate, glib sound effect.

But, the motion of descent is persuasive; the rickety stairs leading to the bowels of the pit emphasise the precariousness and risks of Orpheus’s venture, and the dense smoke which swirled in around us in the gloom — perhaps too dense? — evoked the mists which obscure his understanding and his progress. A discarded shopping trolley, filled with detritus and diabolic emblems (design Lucia Riley) is a fitting emblem of misery and despair. Three Furies (Isabella Van Braeckel, Joanna Foote and Eimear Monaghan) angrily storm through the darkness, accompanied by dramatic choral interjections from above, until quelled by the sweetness of Orpheus’s lyre — evoked by the resonant pizzicati of Sivan Traub’s violin — they agree to help return Eurydice to him.

Ascending to the Theatre Stage, the audience find themselves in the Elysium Fields of the versatile Van Braeckel and Monaghan, a shimmering paradise of reflecting white discs strung from knotted ropes, the floor ornamented with black, circular mats decorated with silvery spirals; the scene is illuminated by an evocative amber and chartreuse glow. The unveiling of a hideous skeleton when Orpheus contravenes his promise not to look back at Euridice is a striking coup de theatre. Drawn to the front of the stage, we witnessed Orpheus submit to suicidal thoughts in the Theatre Auditorium which is transformed by Mathias Krajewski into Orpheus’s homeland. A wig-wam of thin threads furnishes him with a hang-man’s rope until his grief so moves the Gods that they allow Eurydice to return to the mortal world, weaving and gliding through the audience to re-join her husband.

For the happy conclusion, the jubilant characters and chorus assemble in the Theatre Bar for a celebratory home-coming. Robin Soutar’s pillar-box red Punch and Judy booth restores the sardonic, burlesque air of the opening scene, as the dignified strains of Gluck give way to the more riotous tones of Offenbach’s ‘Infernal Galop’.

Performance standards were high, especially considering that most of the participants are amateurs performers. As Eurydice, soprano Pamela Hay revealed a glittering upper register and strong, varied characterisation, capable of capturing both the intensity and insouciance that the different settings require. The sweetness of her tone and elegance of phrase garnered much pity for Eurydice. Joanna Foote was similarly affecting as Amor: her arias were well-crafted and stylish. The chorus sang with good intonation and a well-blended, balanced sound.

As Orpheus, Paul Featherstone was committed and impassioned, and he did much to involve the audience in the drama and to encourage their sympathetic engagement with the protagonists’ fates. But, sadly, poor intonation, some heavy-handed shaping of the melodic phrases, a rough-edged tone and an undeviating dynamic level — forte — made this role a weak link in the performance. There were moments of tenderness, but these were not sustained, and the big numbers — ‘Chiamo il mio ben’, Che farò senza Euridice?’ — lacked the necessary mellifluousness and lyricism.

The designs were fresh and interesting; these young, up-and-coming students approached the work without preconceptions about what opera design ‘should’ be, and there were some imaginative and striking visual images and effects. Occasionally elements of the venue were a little distracting — signs and notices, stairways and lighting drawing our focus away from the moral dignity of the mythological journey; and, occasionally unsuspecting art students going about their business were startled to find themselves part of an operatic liberation assignment, their passage barred by an assortment of blessed spirits or demons! But, the imbibers in the Theatre Bar seemed pleasantly amused by the arrival of the pantomime-esque road-show at the close.

It seems incredible that all this is achieved on a shoe-string budget; EPOC relies on box office receipts and students have to fund their own materials for sets and costumes. It is not just a ‘worthy’ venture but a worthwhile and artistically rewarding one too.

Claire Seymour


Cast and production information:

This ‘promenade’ version of Gluck’s opera is ‘Phase 2’ of EPOC’s project, following on from Phase 1 ‘Opera Blocks’, an interactive presentation in primary schools unpacking the work, and opera in general. Next comes a performance at the Royal Albert Hall on 17 March involving choirs representing all 55 schools in the borough of Camden accompanied by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; Phase 4 will conclude the project, during which EPOC will work with schools to create their own versions of Orpheus and Eurydice — writing arias, choruses, building and designing sets and costumes, before performing their devised works to parents.

Orpheus, Paul Featherstone; Eurydice, Pamela Hay; Amor, Joanna Foote; Animals at Wedding Feast Vivian Lu (Rhinoceros), Anastasia Glazova (Monkey), Eimear Monaghan; (Rabbit), Joanna Foote (Snake); Mourners at Funeral Isabella Van Braeckel, Laureline Garcia, Jess Milton, Krishna Menon, Marlene Binder, Chuck Blue Lowry; Priest at Funeral, Robin Soutar; Charon, Minshin Yano; 3 Moirai (Furies) Isabella Van Braeckel (Atropos), Joanna Foote (Lachesis), Eimear Monaghan (Clotho); Blessed Spirits Joanna Foote (sung), Maddy Rita Faye, Lucia Riley; Director, Mark Tinkler; Music Director, Philip Voldman; Lighting Design. Alex Hopkins, Fridthjofur Thorsteinsson; Set Design, Maddy Rita Faye, Denisa Dumitrescu, Vivian Lu, Anastasia Glazova, Lucia Riley, Isabella Van Braeckel, Eimear Monaghan, Mathias Krajewski, Robin Soutar; Costume Design. Robin Soutar (Orpheus), Denisa Dumitrescu (Eurydice), Anastasia Glazova, (Amor), Mathias Krajewski (Amor Sc6, Olympian Gods), Maddy Rita Faye (‘Animals’ at Wedding Feast), Denisa Dumitrescu (Mourners and Priest at Funeral), Lucia Riley (Charon & 3 Moirai), Isabella Van Braeckel, Eimear Monaghan (Blessed Spirits and Eurydice puppet); Violin, Sivan Traub; Stage Manager, Heather Young; Lighting Assistant, Aubrey Tait. Platform Theatre, Central St Martin’s, London, Tuesday, 21st January, 2014

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