Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Orpheus: Opera North crosses the cultural River Styx

15 October 2022

Hellzapoppin’ at the Leeds Grand Theatre.


Ashnaa Sasikaran & Nicholas Watts (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

The term ‘re-imagining’ is often a useful warning that the event in question will be either a game stab at inter-cultural blending or a cringe-worthy attempt to squeeze some unfortunate classic or other into the teenage director’s concept of ‘relevance’. Fortunately, Opera North and South Asian Arts were proceeding from a wholly credible and logical base when they decided to mix Monteverdi’s Orfeo with Indian classical music. The groundwork for such an undertaking had been laid almost half a century ago when David Munrow explored the link between the great Italian composer and oriental music, not just from the influence of Venetian culture but the closeness of both types of music to the human voice.

The late English tenor Nigel Rogers was also a significant influence, in that his unique vocal style, capable of a floridness of ornamentation seldom equalled, was based on his studies with the Indian classical singer Bhimsen Joshi, and those who seek a way in to the present collaboration might well gain some insight from listening to Rogers performing the central aria, ‘Possente Spirto’ which reveals the flexibility of a style based upon the techniques of Asian vocal art.

With such a solid musical background, it was hardly surprising that Laurence Cummings, who last Summer led Garsington’s wonderful Orfeo was inspired, together with the composer and music director Jasdeep Singh Degun, to see if the two styles could blend in a full production. The result is vividly colourful, moving and surprisingly immediate; it’s worth noting that Opera North have clearly been successful in bringing in new audiences, given the gasps of shock when Orpheus turned around and thereby brought his dream crashing down.

We are in a semi-detached suburban garden, lit by lanterns and gaudily bedecked for the wedding of Orpheus and Euridice (set designs by Leslie Travers) – the only things missing are, from a ‘British’ wedding, a full complement of embarrassing uncles, and from an ‘Asian’ one, tables groaning with food which you simply had to eat lest you risk upsetting one of the Aunties. Amy Freston’s La Musica, in top to toe John Lewis ‘Mother of the Groom’, duetted with Deepa Nair Rasiya’s Sangeet, resplendent in green and gold, establishing the link between the two cultures. The various musicians, whether violins or sitars, were seated around the action, in a similar way to the staging at Garsington, lending an unusually inclusive feel to the proceedings.

“The result is vividly colourful, moving and surprisingly immediate…”


Chiranjeeb Chakraborty, Vijay Rajput, Céline Saout & Nicholas Watts (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

Anna Himali Howard’s production focuses on interaction between the characters rather than any extraneous interventions, and is all the better for it. Hades could perhaps be more vividly imagined, but otherwise the narrative’s challenges are well met, a prime example being the presentation of Apollo as a guru, advising Orpheus on how to live with his grief; Kirpal Singh Panesar was ideal in this role. Nicholas Watts presented an ardent hero, a little underpowered to begin with but rising to the occasion with ‘Possente Spirto’. Ashnaa Sasikaran’s Euridice was unmiked so tended to sound fragile in contrast to some of the other Asian ladies, whilst Kezia Bienek made a strong impression as Silvia.

Kaviraj Singh’s Caronte was compellingly sung, and poor old Pluto, in the striking form of Dean Robinson, didn’t stand a chance against the seductive wiles of the beautiful Chandra Chakraborty as Proserpina. Yarline Thanabalasingam was a sweet-toned Speranza, and the Shepherds were led by the strongly characterized Xavier Hetherington; Laurence Cummings also lent his fine tenor to the ensemble.

The musicians, whether from the West or Eastern traditions, were superb throughout, with too many standout performances to note, although Emilia Benjamin’s Lirone, Shahbaz Hussain’s Tabla, Céline Saout’s Harp and Kaviraj Singh’s Santoor must have special mention. Judging by the audience’s reaction, there is definitely an appetite for more of this high-level musical intertwining, and Opera North and South Asian Arts can feel proud of their achievement.

• Details of future performances can be found here.

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Orpheus: Opera North crosses the cultural River Styx