Opera + Classical Music Reviews

L’Orfeo / Jane Irwin @ Festival Theatre / Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

11 August 2007

Saturday evening’s production of Orfeo at the gorgeous Edinburgh Festival Theatre was not perfect, but it had three things going for it. The orchestra (Le Concert des Nations played well, Furio Zanasi played the title role with great sincerity and grace, and the sets are superlative. I would go so far as to claim this to be among the definitive stagings of Monteverdi’s opera.

The English National Opera blew me away last year with their colourful interpretation, but this more traditional, less ostensibly outlandish reading reaps equal rewards. Director Gilbert Deflo emphasises the work’s theatricality (characters stand still, even pose, to deliver lines, the sets are simple and obviously wooden, the stage curtain is a mirror, reflecting the audience back to them) but he makes the theatrical seem somehow beautiful and genuine.

Those wooden sets are beautiful to see and dramatically serviceable, whether we take the craggy, imposing cave setting of Act Three or the desolate, empty stage of Act Five, blazoned with the Sun’s cruel rays. With a change of lighting, the stage canopy transforms from pastoral foliage to towering rock, and then to cloud. In such settings, characters stand in lines and often act demonstratively (the Messenger does so most noticeably), but on Saturday I always believed in the storyline and in the characters’ emotions. There is perhaps something tragically moving about the suggestion that true, violent passions and feelings are smothered beneath 17th century ceremony.

The first night cast was not ideal, but Furio Zanasi’s Orfeo was tremendous. The role straddles the baritone and tenor registers, and Zanasi’s rich, honeyed resonance compensated for any lack of tenorial ‘ping’. He projected better than anyone else on stage and made a good stab at the famously arduous Possente spirto, though the single note trills could catch awkwardly in his throat. His Euridice, Arianna Savall sang pleasingly, but even better was Gloria Banditelli‘s interpretation of the Messenger – a dignified, heart-wrenching performance. I was less keen on Montserrat Figueras in the role of Music, whose sound I found pinched and unsuited to the role.

Underpinning all was the eye-opening conducting of Jordi Savall. The opening trumpet fanfares didn’t seem biting enough, but Savall directed Le Concert des Nations admirably. Given that this is a period orchestra, the security of the brass is little short of astonishing, while textures were clearly defined and ingeniously balanced. Above all, the work’s many parts melded into a whole. The other musicians, La Capella Reial de Catalunya, sang forcefully (some ropey intonation aside) and danced with snap and coordination. Monteverdi’s music is still relevant and still fascinating, and this production is worth travelling far to see. Book urgently for the remaining performances.

Earlier on Saturday, mezzo Jane Irwin and the Hebrides Ensemble made a welcome appearance at the Queen’s Hall. At first, Irwin’s throat did not completely behave, but her sound became increasingly opulent and her vocal expressivity, so crucial especially in a performance of Berio’s Folk Songs, rose to match. She didn’t cut much of a figure on the platform, but that gloriously earthy lower register was compensation in itself. Meanwhile, each member of the ensemble displayed commendable solo virtuosity in Janáček’s Mládí (a fascinating work – the urgent motivic reiterations and grotesque wind writing of the composer’s operas still find a place at the fore in his chamber music). And Nigel Osborne’s Balkan Dances and Laments saw players hunched over instruments like witches hunched over cauldrons, probing incessantly for ever more ambiguous, mysterious tonalities and textures. Exciting stuff.

In between the two, I attended a performance of one of the many musicals at this year’s Fringe, namely Asbo! The Musical by the Z Theatre Company. If the show isn’t smart enough to provide much political or social satire, it is warm-hearted, funny and performed with great dedication. The score is typical fare (do I detect a touch of Bernstein?) and there are too many gratuitous obscenities, even for the subject matter, but the young cast keep the ensemble tight and sing very strongly. The male leads are perfectly cast; the three chav girls are fabulous, fabulous, fabulous. It’s undeniably lightweight, but an excellent choice for a cheap guffaw.

L’Orfeo is sponsored by Lloyds TSB Scotland

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L’Orfeo / Jane Irwin @ Festival Theatre / Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh