Tuesday, November 29

Opera North: Orpheus – The Lowry

Opera North’s latest venture into Orpheus is a collaboration with Leeds-based South Asian Arts as their respective musical directors’ fuse Monteverdi’s operatic masterpiece, led by Laurence Cummings, with original compositions composed by Jasdeep Singh Degun reflecting the Indian classical tradition. Whilst the individual parts entertained and demonstrated some great musicianship and singing, it didn’t really add up to a satisfying whole which was often confusing on the eye and ear with its interrupted flow.

Whilst billed as a reimagining, the story of Orpheus (Nicholas Watts) the musician trying to retrieve his dead wife, Eurydice (Ashnaa Sasikaran), from the underworld remains the same as does the devastating conclusion when he looks back too soon and loses her forever. The interpretation comes in in the staging from Director Anna Himali Howard who sets the wedding party in a well-presented back garden of a terrace house with the musicians – whether playing violin or tabla, cello or esraj, harp or ghatam – making up the wedding guests, with rich costumes and staging from Leslie Travers reinforcing the occasion.

But the celebrations are short-lived as the piece quickly turns to how to deal with grief, with the mixed approach allowing the contrast between cultural philosophies and religions to be explored. As the baroque Orpheus’ heroic journey falters, it is the wisdom of Eastern mysticism that hints at the hope in a new dawn.

Photo: Tristram Kenton

It was good to see the instruments being played on stage rather than hidden away, the Indian instruments in particular for my untrained Western eye, and even more pleasing to see the Indian instrumentalists honouring their tradition of singing as well as playing with strong performances from Kaviraj Singh as Caronte and Kirpal Singh Panesar as the sage Apollo.

It was at the junction of the two styles though where the production struggled, more so in the opening half when the respective sections were shorter and played off each other in a more staccato fashion as if one had the odd pages and the other the even pages of the musical score. This improved in the second half, perhaps in part as my ears had become more accustomed to the dissonance, but more because each tradition was given greater time although this did feel on occasion overly long and protracted. That said, I really enjoyed the improvised frisson between RN Prakash (ghatam, kanjira, mridangam) and Shahbaz Hussain (tabla) which was in marked contrast to the more controlled and rigid style of the original playing and singing.

My experience is only one opinion, and I did take the opportunity to talk with and listen to audience members both during and after the production. For those from the Indian community, this was a major step forward in hearing their music on a renowned stage, and importantly being played to a new audience who they felt were appreciative of it. To those more used to western classical music, there was a desire to engage with what was being presented although it came across more as being on-trend rather than an appreciation of a new musical experience and attempted fusion, and that to me lies at the heart of the problem: I could and would have enjoyed this re-telling either in its original form or in a fully eastern interpretation, but I would question whether a more western-minded audience would have even attended the latter. If this production serves only to begin breaking down barriers, then it should be considered a success.

Orpheus is one of Opera North’s current touring productions, further details https://www.operanorth.co.uk/whats-on

Reviewer: Mark Davoren

Reviewed: 19th November 2022

North West End UK Rating: ★★★