Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

John F. Larchet's Complete Songs and Airs: in conversation with Niall Kinsella

Dublin-born John F. Larchet (1884-1967) might well be described as the father of post-Independence Irish music, given the immense influenced that he had upon Irish musical life during the first half of the 20th century - as a composer, musician, administrator and teacher.

Haddon Hall: 'Sullivan sans Gilbert' does not disappoint thanks to the BBC Concert Orchestra and John Andrews

The English Civil War is raging. The daughter of a Puritan aristocrat has fallen in love with the son of a Royalist supporter of the House of Stuart. Will love triumph over political expediency and religious dogma?

Beethoven’s Choral Symphony and Choral Fantasy from Harmonia Mundi

Beethoven Symphony no 9 (the Choral Symphony) in D minor, Op. 125, and the Choral Fantasy in C minor, Op. 80 with soloist Kristian Bezuidenhout, Pablo Heras-Casado conducting the Freiburger Barockorchester, new from Harmonia Mundi.

A Musical Reunion at Garsington Opera

The hum of bees rising from myriad scented blooms; gentle strains of birdsong; the cheerful chatter of picnickers beside a still lake; decorous thwacks of leather on willow; song and music floating through the warm evening air.

Taking Risks with Barbara Hannigan

A Louise Brooks look-a-like, in bobbed black wig and floor-sweeping leather trench-coat, cheeks purple-rouged and eyes shadowed in black, Barbara Hannigan issues taut gestures which elicit fire-cracker punch from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

Alfredo Piatti: The Operatic Fantasies (Vol.2) - in conversation with Adrian Bradbury

‘Signor Piatti in a fantasia on themes from Beatrice di Tenda had also his triumph. Difficulties, declared to be insuperable, were vanquished by him with consummate skill and precision. He certainly is amazing, his tone magnificent, and his style excellent. His resources appear to be inexhaustible; and altogether for variety, it is the greatest specimen of violoncello playing that has been heard in this country.’

'In my end is my beginning': Mark Padmore and Mitsuko Uchida perform Winterreise at Wigmore Hall

All good things come to an end, so they say. Let’s hope that only the ‘good thing’ part of the adage is ever applied to Wigmore Hall, and that there is never any sign of ‘an end’.

Those Blue Remembered Hills: Roderick Williams sings Gurney and Howells

Baritone Roderick Williams seems to have been a pretty constant ‘companion’, on my laptop screen and through my stereo speakers, during the past few ‘lock-down’ months.

Iestyn Davies and Elizabeth Kenny bring 'sweet music' to Wigmore Hall

Countertenor Iestyn Davies and lutenist Elizabeth Kenny kicked off the final week of live lunchtime recitals broadcast online and on radio from Wigmore Hall.

Bruno Ganz and Kirill Gerstein almost rescue Strauss’s Enoch Arden

Melodramas can be a difficult genre for composers. Before Richard Strauss’s Enoch Arden the concept of the melodrama was its compact size – Weber’s Wolf’s Glen scene in Der Freischütz, Georg Benda’s Ariadne auf Naxos and Medea or even Leonore’s grave scene in Beethoven’s Fidelio.

From Our House to Your House: live from the Royal Opera House

I’m not ashamed to confess that I watched this live performance, streamed from the stage of the Royal Opera House, with a tear in my eye.

Woman’s Hour with Roderick Williams and Joseph Middleton at Wigmore Hall

At the start of this lunchtime recital, Roderick Williams set out the rationale behind the programme that he and pianist Joseph Middleton presented at Wigmore Hall, bringing to a close a second terrific week of live lunchtime broadcasts, freely accessible via Wigmore Hall’s YouTube channel and BBC Radio 3.

Francisco Valls' Missa Regalis: The Choir of Keble College Oxford and the AAM

In the annals of musical controversies, the Missa Scala Aretina debate does not have the notoriety of the Querelle des Bouffons, the Monteverdi-Artusi spat, or the audience-shocking premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.

Two song cycles by Sir Arthur Somervell: Roderick Williams and Susie Allan

Robert Browning, Lord Alfred Tennyson, Charles Kingsley, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, A.E. Housman … the list of those whose work Sir Arthur Somervell (1863-1937) set to music, in his five song-cycles, reads like a roll call of Victorian poetry - excepting the Edwardian Housman.

Roger Quilter: The Complete Quilter Songbook, Vol. 3

Mark Stone and Stephen Barlow present Volume 3 in their series The Complete Roger Quilter Songbook, on Stone Records.

Richard Danielpour – The Passion of Yeshua

A contemporary telling of the Passion story which uses texts from both the Christian and the Jewish traditions to create a very different viewpoint.

Les Talens Lyriques: 18th-century Neapolitan sacred works

In 1770, during an extended tour of France and Italy to observe the ‘present state of music’ in those two countries, the English historian, critic and composer Charles Burney spent a month in Naples - a city which he noted (in The Present State of Music in France and Italy (1771)) ‘has so long been regarded as the centre of harmony, and the fountain from whence genius, taste, and learning, have flowed to every other part of Europe.’

Herbert Howells: Missa Sabrinensis revealed in its true glory

At last, Herbert Howells’s Missa Sabrinensis (1954) with David Hill conducting the Bach Choir, with whom David Willcocks performed the piece at the Royal Festival Hall in 1982. Willcocks commissioned this Mass for the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester in 1954, when Howells himself conducted the premiere.

Natalya Romaniw - Arion: Voyage of a Slavic Soul

Sailing home to Corinth, bearing treasures won in a music competition, the mythic Greek bard, Arion, found his golden prize coveted by pirates and his life in danger.

Le Banquet Céleste: Stradella's San Giovanni Battista

The life of Alessandro Stradella was characterised by turbulence, adventure and amorous escapades worthy of an opera libretto. Indeed, at least seven composers have turned episodes from the 17th-century Italian composer’s colourful life into operatic form, the best known being Flotow whose three-act comic opera based on the Lothario’s misadventures was first staged in Hamburg in 1844.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

13 Oct 2019

A humourless hike to Hades: Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld at ENO

Q. “Is there an art form you don't relate to?” A. “Opera. It's a dreadful sound - it just doesn't sound like the human voice.”

English National Opera: Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: ENO cast

Photo credit: Clive Barda

 

My preparatory research in advance of Emma Rice’s new production of Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld at English National Opera was inauspicious. Her dismissal of opera as an artform, in an interview in The Guardian in 2012, together with her recent remark to the newspaper’s associate editor (culture) Claire Armitstead that after agreeing to take on the production she found herself thinking, “‘Bloody hell, how do I get through this?’ It would be easier if I knew how to read a score”, didn’t inspire confidence.

Pre-performance, a programme article informed me that Rice’s starting point for re-writing the spoken text of the libretto - the new English lyrics have been supplied by Tom Morris - had been to put the French text through Google Translate and that, as she chopped and changed the opera, particularly Act 2, ENO’s Artistic Director Daniel Kramer had had to remind her, “let’s get the music back in. We are an opera house!” Returning to the score Rice seems to have been quite surprised to find that “yes, there was all this lovely music I’d left out so back it went in and I cut a lot of the text I’d written”. Not enough of the latter, was my post-performance assessment.

Bevan Euridice.jpgMary Bevan (Euridice). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Rice seems to have taken the fact that Offenbach didn’t leave us a definitive score as evidence of a schism in the Werktreue pact between composer and performer, and as licence to act as co-creator and ‘rectifier’. “I started to look at the two-act and the four-act versions and at the three English translations of the libretto that I found. None of them said what I wanted to say.” What about what Offenbach wanted to say?

Rice is probably not inaccurate to observe that “A lot of the satirical nineteenth-century French jokes just don’t work”. Nowadays, Offenbach’s mockery of myths and Gods, and of Gluck’s presentation of them, is unlikely to prompt either a giggle or the disgruntled self-righteousness of the critic, following the 1858 premiere at the Bouffes-Parisiens, who condemned the operetta as a ‘'profanation of holy and glorious antiquity’. And, while Flaubert had been prosecuted for obscenity in 1856 for his daring depiction of the adulterous Emma Bovary, marital discord and infidelity no longer raise eyebrows.

Peep Show.jpgPhoto credit: Clive Barda.

But, what Offenbach really had in his sights was the Second Empire elite and his operetta’s revolutionary energy derives from its lampooning of the veneer of glamour and wealth which masked corruption and authoritarianism. A satire on pompous politicians and their vices surely has some contemporary relevance? After all, Act 2 ends with the gods’ declaration that their ‘strong’ leader is taking them all down to hell. Quite.

Rice seems to have decided otherwise. I was interested to read a comment by the Spectator’s Kate Maltby, written in October 2016 following Rice’s departure from her position as Artistic Director of the Globe Theatre: ‘Rice seemed to view Shakespeare’s texts as obstacles to be avoided, rather than challenges to be solved. […] Why probe a Jacobean playwright’s blindspots if you can just rewrite them?’ Plus ça change

Chorus Orpheus.jpgPhoto credit: Clive Barda.

Don’t be misled by the balloons. Courtesy of the valiant ENO Chorus we have balloon bees, balloon sheep, balloon tutus, balloon clouds, even a taxi borne aloft by balloons, but, set in Soho in the 1950s, Rice’s production is no party. During the overture she presents a ‘pre-story’ which sees the genuinely enamoured Orpheus (Ed Lyon) and Euridice (Mary Bevan) wed, conceive a child and then suffer a tragedy which results in marital breakdown. A wreath spelling BABY casts a depressing and not entirely tasteful shadow on proceedings.

Lucas and Lyon.jpg Lucia Lucas (Public Opinion) and Ed Lyon (Orpheus). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

The traumatised Euridice runs off with ‘shepherd’ Aristaeus (Alex Otterburn’s Pluto in disguise) and Public Opinion (Lucia Lucas) - a London cabbie who has ‘The Knowledge’ - persuades Orpheus to hop into his TX4 and head for Hades to win her back. First, though, we stop off in Olympus, a luxury lido where the gods are bored and behaving badly. Ambrosia and amorous adventures are no longer gratifying, and Jupiter is a sexual predator. When the Hackney cab rolls up in Hell, we find Euridice imprisoned in a hovel, the horrors of which are exacerbated by her inebriate gaoler, John Styx (Alan Ope is brilliantly sinister but it’s not clear why he laments his lost kingship of Poland, rather than Boeotia?).

Forced to work in a sleazy Peep Show, Euridice is leered at by dirty old men-in-macs and a beer-bellied Bacchus (the ENO Chorus’s Peter Willcock). Where Offenbach’s score gives us the sparkle of life-affirming laughter, Rice gives us misogyny and #MeToo sexual abuse. Euridice sings: “Dance! Till you feel your soul goes. Dance until control goes and you can’t ask why. Embrace the frenzy and the pain until the mad becomes the sane.” Infernal it certainly is, but not the time and place for a can-can.

Orpheus Act 4.jpgPhoto credit: Clive Barda.

Rice declares, “if I do one thing I will make people care about [Orpheus and Euridice]”; it might have been better if she’d made us laugh. Even our London cabbie’s humour fails, though Lucas does her best with the ponderous dialogue. And, if we do care, then it’s because Lyon and Bevan, and the rest of the strong cast, sing with courage and commitment, not because of Rice’s meddling.

Alex Otterburn Pluto.jpgAlex Otterburn (Pluto). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Bevan’s beautiful warm soprano gives some weight to Rice’s conception of Euridice as a woman wronged, and Lyon is a sympathetic Orpheus in contrast to the slimy sleaze-balls who plague his beloved. Alex Otterburn’s campy Pluto flicks his forked tail with aplomb and delivers an agile performance. Ellie Laugharne looks and sounds good as the gold-lame hot-pant wearing Cupid, though her words evaded me, and Idunnu Münch sings Diana’s decidedly unchaste aria superbly. Judith Howarth (Venus) and Anne-Marie Owens (Juno) are strong vocally but under-directed, though the latter gives a masterclass in how to declaim the spoken dialogue. Keel Watson dons a medal-decorated white bathing-gown over his combat fatigues as the bellicose Mars. Dressed in Bermuda shorts and drawing on a cigar, Willard White sings resonantly but is a rather stern and disengaged Jupiter; perhaps he was disaffected by having to sing lines such as “When I wiggle my bum, my little wings begin to hum” in the fly-duet.

Lizzie Clachan’s set and Lez Brotherston’s costumes are eye-pleasing and colourfully lit by Malcolm Rippeth. In the pit, Sian Edwards does her best to serve up some sparkle, but the stop-starts caused by the dull (amplified) dialogue take the edge of the dramatic pace. Glitter and be gay this Orpheus is not. By the end, the balloons had well and truly burst.

Claire Seymour

Eurydice - Mary Bevan. Orpheus - Ed Lyon, Public Opinion - Lucia Lucas, Pluto- Alex Otterburn, Jupiter - Willard White, Juno - Anne-Marie Owens, Cupid - Ellie Laugharne, Diana - Idunnu Münch, Venus - Judith Howarth, Mars - Keel Watson, John Styx - Alan Oke; Director - Emma Rice, Conductor -Sian Edwards, Set Designer - Lizzie Clachan, Costume Designer - Lez Brotherston, Lighting Designer - Malcolm Rippeth, Choreographer - Etta Murfitt, Sound Designer - Simon Baker, Orchestra and Chorus of English National Opera.

English National Opera, London Coliseum; Friday 11th October 2019.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):