Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Orfeo: English Touring Opera @ Hackney Empire, London

6 October 2006



English Touring Opera’s enterprising Baroque Festival Tour has got off to a workmanlike start with a production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, one of the first operas written. The strengths of the evening are some fine ensemble singing from the mostly young cast and an outstanding performance by Hal Cazalet in the central role. Add to that a simple but striking setting by installation artist Kathy Prendergast and atmospheric lighting by Matthew Haskins and this is a visually attractive production.

However, at a time when standards of acting in opera are generally very high, James Conway‘s direction reminds us that Stanislavski created his “system” of acting in response to the needs of opera singers. Conway has an eye for the visual and groups his performers well but doesn’t help them to understand their motivations and actions.

As a result, there’s a lack of physical commitment in the performances as though the singers are carrying out their actions simply because the director has told them to. This is evident right from the beginning, with the half-hearted dumbshow, a kind of physical rhubarbing, that takes place as the audience seats itself. It continues with some very generalised emoting and means that crucial scenes like the Messenger’s reporting of Euridice’s death are lacking in drama and uninvolving.

The ETO Baroque Orchestra, conducted by Robert Howarth is never as refined as it should be for this music, from a rather ragged opening Toccata onwards. A chorus of local singers, in this case The Hackney Singers, perform with enthusiasm.

The ensemble of eight singers is often very effective, stronger as a whole than most of the individual performances. Hal Cazalet as Orfeo, though, is quite riveting in his big Act 3 solo (beginning with the aria “Possente Spirto”) and the harp ritornello from this section is well-played and a delight to hear. Cazalet’s stature grows throughout the evening and it is worth seeing Orfeo for him alone. I think we will hear more of this singer in the future.

It’s no coincidence that at this high point of the performance the action is completely static, with everything focused on Cazalet. It’s a welcome relief from some of the fussy and distracting activity that takes place at other times; definitely a case of less is more.

Maybe I was missing something but I was rather mystified by the recurring motif of Orfeo’s gloves on a string (yes, the sort that mothers give to primary school children). It seems to me that Orfeo’s loss is greater than that of a pair of woollen mittens, yet they keep cropping up, finally adorning the trees en masse. The significance of the symbolism passed me by.

The ensemble are Huw Rhys-Evans, Joana Thomé, Katherine Manley, David Stout, Susan Atherton, Martin Robson, Sean Clayton and Jane Harrington.

Whatever shortcomings in Orfeo, I have to applaud ETO for this ambitious programme of four operas (plus an oratorio) which will now tour the country during the autumn. There are a number of associated events at each venue, most eye-catching of which is an informal recital of Bawdy Baroque Songs, to be enjoyed over a pint. With titles such as “Pox on your Fop” and lyrics like “And in a grove of olives thick, she played with the drummer’s magic stick”, it sounds very promising!

Orfeo is sung in an English translation by Anne Ridler and will be joined by ETO’s productions of Cavalli’s Erismena, Handel’s Tolomeo and a double bill of Dido & Aeneas (Purcell) and Carissimi’s Jephte.

If you’re not familiar with English Touring Opera’s work, they have an impressive programme of outreach activities, which is something that cannot be valued too highly. If you don’t mind your opera a little rough around the edges, there is much to enjoy in their autumn tour.

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Orfeo: English Touring Opera @ Hackney Empire, London