Review: Orfeo ed Euridice by Opera North
Despite my bourgeois upbringing, I haven’t seen many operas. The only one I had seen before was Akhenaten, an epic in three acts without subtitles. During the second intermission, my guest had to excuse himself to make sure he wouldn’t fall asleep in the third act, so while I was excited to see Orpheus and EurydiceI was also worried.
The story of Orpheus (an alternate spelling of the classic Orpheus) is not the one I know well. It’s more of a cultural touchstone that I’ve absorbed through references in media such as Portrait of a lady on firethe Percy Jackson steampunk books and band The mechanisms‘ Greek sci-fi myth, where Orpheus attempts to retrieve his lover’s brain from a super computer.
The advantage of an opera is that the audience is not supposed to learn the history of the performance on stage. Instead, a program details key plot points that can be mapped to the stage performance and subtitles that translate the sung Italian into English.
In the grand scheme of things, this opera is short, at just under two hours, including the intermission. The narrative is basic but the emotional story nonetheless; there’s a reason it’s become a cultural touchstone.
The pivotal moment comes when Orfeo (Alice Coote OBE) tries to convince Euridice (Fflur Wyn) to follow him out of the afterlife without being allowed to look at or touch her, or tell her why. The performance between the two lead singers was heartbreaking to watch, Euridice begging Orfeo to look at her and kiss her as he stared resolutely into the distance. It works especially since the audience knows that soon Orfeo will turn around, and thus lose Euridice again.
An interesting feature with the two titular characters was that they were both played by women. Apparently, this is a common casting decision for Orfeo due to the tone of his songs, but there was nonetheless a strange energy to a woman referring to herself as a missing husband to her dead wife. Especially for older audiences, it seems like a subtle way to include some much-needed weirdness.
As a more modern theater regular, it’s always impressive to see a great cast. Although it’s traditional for opera, I didn’t quite realize a full orchestra would be playing (conducted by Antony Hermus). The instruments are many and varied, and they create a wonderful accompaniment for opera singers. The Greek chorus is also a delight to hear as a full-bodied contrast to the single-voiced lamentations of Orfeo and Euridice as well as that of Amore (Daisy Brown).
While the cast and orchestra are impressive, the staging is very simple, with a single raised platform in the center and a backdrop of stars to indicate whether the characters are on Earth or in the Underworld. A harpist plays on stage while Orfeo soothes the harpies. It was a touch that I really liked, emphasizing the talent of the musicians.
The costumes are also very simple and made me wish for something a little more extravagant, especially since that’s one of the things the opera is known for. It was a stripped-down concert that “which elevates the emotional power of the music and the splendor of the choir and orchestra”.
While the simplicity emphasizes the characters, it would have been nice to have more actors to interact with, as I found a lot of the scenes moved very slowly.
Overall I found many lovely elements, but I don’t think I will be visiting another opera house again anytime soon. I heard a lot of people praising various elements of the performance, but the slow Italian singing wasn’t a style that resonated with me.
For more Opera North content, check out our review of Orpheus – an Indian reimagining of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo. Both The Orfeo and Orpheus and Eurydice are based on the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice; the most common story in operas from the 16th to the 20th century.