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<em>Orfeo ed Euridice</em>, Longborough Festival Opera Young Artists
06 Aug 2017

Longborough Young Artists in London: Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice

For the last three years, Longborough Festival Opera’s repertoire of choice for their Young Artist Programme productions has been Baroque opera seria, more specifically Handel, with last year’s Alcina succeeding Rinaldo in 2014 and Xerxes in 2015.

Orfeo ed Euridice, Longborough Festival Opera Young Artists

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Hanna-Liisa Kirchin (Orfeo)

Photo credit: Matthew Williams-Ellis

 

And, the practice of following performances at Longborough with a trip to London (and in 2015 to Hastings too) has become instituted, to give the young singers the opportunity to gain greater visibility and experience in how to adapt to different performance venues.

At the 450-seater Greenwood Theatre near London Bridge - built and owned by the Charitable Foundation of Guy’s Hospital following donations from Sir James Mantle Greenwood in 1975, and now leased by King’s College London for lectures, student productions and external clients - to which LFO’s production of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice travelled this year, such adaptability was necessary. The absence of a pit to accommodate a fairly large orchestra, meant that obstructed sight-lines put the first few rows of seats out-of-action; in addition, and more importantly, the size of the venue seemed to require greater reduction in orchestra forces than was undertaken (some instrumentalists exited after the overture).

Then, though I cannot be sure as I did not attend the preceding performances in Longborough, the stage dimensions seemed to impose some restrictions on the performers’ movement and interactions - quite crucially so in an opera whose well-known narrative is not particularly ‘busy’ but which balances Classical restraint with genuine, intense human passion. Moreover, this particular production foregrounded Gluck’s formal innovations - specifically, the integration of music and dance - which underpin the composer’s ‘revolutionary’ approach to the seria genre: thus, fluidity of movement as the chorus/dancers interacted with the protagonists was crucial.

Designer Richard Studer sought, he says, a design which represented a portal between ‘states in flux’: life and death, heaven and earth, ascent and descent. A circle within a granite square - a void that represents both ‘entombment and release’ - was dramatized by taut lyre-string ribbons stretching up and outwards, reminiscent of the inherent classicism of a Barbara Hepworth sculpture, aspiring to abstract beauty.

The stark, or in Gluck’s words, ‘beautiful simplicity’ of director Maria Jagusz’s concept was undoubtedly both apposite and economically prudent. The transitional portal, raised on two right-angled staircases, foregrounded the minimal props: a Grecian funerary urn and Orfeo’s lyre, the strings of which became voluminous ribbons whose undulating waves wafted an intangible music. Dan Saggars’ lighting was generally effective, although the prevailing gloom made little distinction between the Stygian darkness and the wonderful illumination of the Elysian Fields.

Dancers LFO.jpg Hanna-Liisa Kirchin (Orfeo) and Chorus/Dancers. Photo credit: Matthew Williams-Ellis.

One of the disarming novelties of Gluck’s opera, first seen in Vienna in 1762, was that it broke down musical divisions, integrating recitatives, arias, choruses and dances in organic scenic episodes to create true music drama. Jagusz stays true to this ideal, her twelve-strong chorus adopting a movement vocabulary of archaic ritualism. However, while the principals are associated with Greco-Roman emblems - ‘For Orfeo, his 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’ - the chorus’s costumes and narrative sign-language are decidedly Bollywood in derivation.

Moreover, these choric gestures were not only sometimes sloppily executed but also seemed to distract the singers from their primary responsibility - that is, singing. Some of the entries were scruffy and their responses to Orfeo’s desperate questions - ‘Where is Euridice?’ - were somewhat hesitant, lacking conviction: less, ‘Euridice is coming!’ and more ‘She’s on the way, perhaps …’

Conductor Jeremy Silver has impressed me in the past, but if he has an instinct for Donizetti then melodrama of the Gluckian kind eluded him on this occasion. There was little grace or serenity about the orchestral playing and if things did improve after the interval that was largely because the woodwinds and horns are less frequently deployed in the latter scenes and the intonation improved markedly. That said, there was some fine harpsichord playing by Julian Perkins and the strings did settle as the performance proceeded.

Jordan Scrase, Emily Smith.jpg Jordan Scrase and Emily Smith (Blessed Spirits). Photo credit: Matthew Williams-Ellis.

As the mythic quester, Hanna-Liisa Kirchin displayed a mezzo which is not huge but which is sweet-toned and expressive. Interestingly, my guest remarked that at first he was uncertain whether Orfeo was being sung by a countertenor or a mezzo, for Kirchin’s voice does have an unusual colour - one which was most effective in a role initially taken by the castrato Gaetano Guadagni, modified by Gluck for haute-contre tenor when the opera was seen in Paris, and which has since been sung by every voice type from soprano to baritone (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau recorded the role for Deutsche Grammophon in 1982). Kirchin worked hard in ‘Che farò senza Euridice’: her voicing of loss was dignified and imbued with wrenching pain, although sometimes at the expense of seamless, expansive phrasing.

Nazan Fikret (Euridice) - LFO Orfeo ed Euridice 2017 cr Matthew Williams-Ellis (33).jpg Nazan Fikret (Euridice). Photo credit: Matthew Williams-Ellis.

If the ritual formality of the production limited the opportunities for interaction, then Kirchin’s duet with Nazan Fikret’s Euridice was a highlight. Fikret’s soprano may not have captured all of Euridice’s graciousness but her voice has a brilliance which was vivifying. More touching still, though, was the Hamlet-like dance-mime during the ‘Dance of the Blessed Spirits’ by Jordan Scrase and Emily Smith, which relived the opera’s narrative of tragic loss and restoration.

Amore cr Matthew Williams-Ellis (7).jpgHe Wu (Amore). Photo credit: Matthew Williams-Ellis.

As a crimson-suited Amore, soprano He Wu brought brightness to the drama, visually and vocally, though occasionally she exhibited a slight tremor in the voice. Diminutive of stature, Amore was easily hoisted onto the shoulders of Jack Holton’s statuesque Spirit, Wu’s golden wings unnecessary.

Jagusz’s production certainly confirmed the artistic power of economy, and the young singers acquitted themselves well.

Claire Seymour

Gluck: Orfeo ed Euridice

Orfeo - Hanna-Liisa Kirchin, Euridice - Nazan Fikrit, Amore - He Wu, Charon/Spirit - Jack Holton, Blessed Spirits - Jordan Scrase and Emily Smith, Director - Maria Jagusz, Conductor - Jeremy Silver, Designer - Richard Studer, Lighting Designer - Dan Saggars, Assistant Director - Ralf Higgins, Choreographer - Mark Smith, Orchestra and Chorus of Longborough Young Artists (Shepherds, Nymphs, Furies, Demons of the Underworld, Heroes and Heroines of Elysium, Companions of Orfeo),

Greenwood Theatre, King’s College London; 4th August 2017.

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