A scholastic consensus identifies the first exotic entertainment combining song, dance and instruments that, today, we might classify as Opera, to the Florence of the Medicis in 1598. From whatever tentative, embryonic beginnings, the musical world had not long to wait, therefore, for the genre’s first assured masterpiece in Monteverdi’s setting of the Orpheus legend in 1607. Unsurprisingly, it remains the earliest work in the repertoire of our major opera companies.
The wedding celebrations of Orpheus and Eurydice are cut short, when the bride is bitten by a snake and dies. Overcome with grief, Orpheus, a musician whose singing can tame the wild beasts, resolves to venture to the Underworld and “make the Land Of The Dead the subject of his will” in order to bring her back.
At the river boundary between life and beyond, he encounters the ferryman Caronte, who pities him, yet still denies him access. However, his wondrous singing charms the boatman’s eyes to close – and Orpheus makes the crossing.
Pluto, King of the Land Of The Dead, hears Orpheus and, following a heartfelt plea from his Queen, Prosperina, finally allows Orpheus to lead Eurydice home, on the one condition that he never looks at her. On their journey, fearing some fickle trickery from the Gods, that his beloved no longer follows him, Orpheus fatefully looks back. Eurydice is lost to him forever. His only consolation is guidance from Apollo as to how to assuage his remorse.
This tale from the Greek myths is familiar to opera-goers from settings by Gluck – Opera North’s Leeds’ production opens on 26 October – Offenbach and many others. Much rarer is an adaptation involving the blending together of Western and Eastern musical vocabularies. Composer Jasdeep Singh Degun had to take two very different written musical languages and performance models and find common ground between them. His choice of the Monteverdi was not arbitrary. The florid vocal writing demanded by operatic superstars of the day fits well with the spontaneous, improvised singing style of the much earlier Indian classical music. On this evidence, there are enough notes common to both to allow melodic phrasing and harmonising together to communicate, as one, the emotion of each moment to any listener. Both languages convey the love and loss, joy and tragedy inherent in the tale; music at its best.
Leslie Travers‘ set places the action in a suburban back garden with Western baroque and Indian classical instrumentalists intermingled along its boundaries. Throughout, the narrative progresses, ingeniously using each and both ensembles, the preoccupations of the mortal world, by and large, handled by the Western group, commentary and interventions from the deities being the domain of the Eastern group. More than mere accompanists, some players are assigned roles as the gods themselves. Thanks to Jasdeep Singh Degun’s and Laurence Cumming‘s direction, Monteverdi’s original score and the newly-composed vocal and instrumental writing carry the storyline along, sometimes separately, more intriguingly in combination, at a pace never likely to lose the listener’s interest.
Nicholas Watts, who has already sung the Monteverdi for English National Opera, brings a suitably beguiling, beautiful voice to the title role, capable of bringing to heel any fevered critical Leeds audience. Ashnaa Sasikaran, as Eurydice, is worth travelling to hell and back. Kirpal Singh Panesar as Apollo and Dean Robinson as Pluto are simply wonderful as the light and dark deities; Chandra Chakraborty as Prosperina and Kaviraj Singh as Caronte offer strong support. There is not a weak link in the cast. Chiranjeeb Chakraborty and Vijay Rajput even manage a humorous Meistersinger contest, a comical momentary deliverance from this timeless tragic tale.
Even so lavish an entertainment as Opera rarely sustains such diverse interest so intensely throughout. Monteverdi’s creation from Renaissance Italy becomes transformed into an extraordinary musical meeting place of East and West. The rapturous applause at its close said it all.
Sung in Italian/Hindi/Urdu with English titles.
Further performance at Leeds Grand Theatre:
Tuesday 18 October, 7 pm
Thursday 20 October, 7 pm
Sat 22 October, 2.30pm
Then touring Newcastle, Nottingham and Salford Quays, 05 – 19 November.
Photography by Tristram Kenton.