The opening night of Orpheus & Eurydice was a subdued affair, for good reason. Many people understandably did not choose to use their tickets on the day terrorism hit the USA, with the events still unfolding as the curtain rose. How ironic that this is a co-production with the New York City Opera.
Under these circumstances the opening lament for the death of Eurydice was almost unbearably moving – the mourners represented on stage by eight dancers demonstrating every physical manifestation of grief, the voices provided by the chorus in the stage boxes. The spare production – a wasteland littered with boulders – added to the illusion that somehow this was connected with the devastation we had seen on our television screens earlier in the day.
However when Alice Coote as Orpheus sang, there was indeed some truth in the adage that music can soothe: she was in such fine voice, and sang with such eloquence and clarity, that it was possible to forget the horrors for a while and dive into Gluck’s world.
Of course that world isn’t very cheery at the beginning. Once Amor (Jeni Bern) has given Orpheus the chance to descend into Hades to retrieve his dead love, the scene changes (solely through skilful sulphurous lighting and some judiciously used liquid nitrogen) into a scene to chill the marrow, with dispossessed souls writhing in torment. Even they, however, are soothed by the music of Orpheus, and he is able to go on his way to find Eurydice. She is surrounded by serene spirits (the dancers in their third guise, now stark naked) but is of course overjoyed to see her husband.
You all know the story – he’s not allowed to look at her but she reproaches him, he turns round and she’s lost to him once more. This scene is perhaps the least satisfying in this production. Not because of the singing, which again is beautiful (Helen Williams as Eurydice could have clearer diction but the tone is lovely). It simply doesn’t work. Orpheus is able to talk to Eurydice – can’t he just tell her why he mustn’t look at her? I wasn’t able to suspend my disbelief at this stage, but really that’s a problem with the myth rather than the production. There is also the little issue that this version of the story takes pity on Orpheus’ renewed grief, Amor deciding that he’s proved his fidelity and restoring Eurydice to live for a second time. The couple make their escape back into the world and opera ends in rejoicing, our stalwart dancers having put their clothes on again. Unfortunately, on 11 September, I think we would all have preferred the Monteverdi version – we weren’t in the mood to be merry.
But this is all rather unfair comment on a cast who beguiled (Alice Coote in particular must be seen in this role), amazingly versatile dancers who were fascinating to watch, and a superb sound from the small orchestra in the pit conducted by Harry Christophers, founder of The Sixteen. All received deservedly warm applause from those of us who were there, and should receive a louder ovation on subsequent nights.