Opera + Classical Music Reviews

The Creation review – a fresh look at Haydn’s masterpiece

7 April 2024

Scherzo Ensemble and Orpheus Sinfonia bring sheer joy to a mixed media production of the popular oratorio.

Scherzo Ensemble/Orpheus Sinfonia The Creation

Orpheus Sinfonia, Scherzo Ensemble Chorus & Matthew O’Keeffe (Photo: Anya Nikolaeva)

Haydn’s The Creation/Die Schöpfung has enjoyed many performances and recordings; it’s also no stranger to adaptation: various new versions of the English text have been introduced in recent years, and one’s thoughts also turn to Carlus Padrissa’s lavish (if somewhat left-field) costumed and ‘acted’ 2017 production on video. A version with dance by a small ensemble, though, gave rise to both curiosity and apprehensiveness.

Trepidation, however, was misplaced, as the performance by Scherzo Ensemble and Orpheus Sinfonia at St John’s, Smith Square on Sunday was a triumph. “The music is so graceful, so infused with movement, that incorporating dance was the obvious choice” reads the programme note, and this was amply demonstrated in an immersive account that filled this listener with sheer delight. First-rate playing and singing (under conductor Matthew O’Keeffe) was combined with sensitive choreography (Osian Meilir), subtle lighting effects (Alex Forey) and minimal but effective costume design (Jennifer Gregory) to deliver Haydn’s elegant and characterful work with a light touch, a clear communication of its dramatic intent, and a perfect resonance with the beautiful spring evening outside.

Scherzo Ensemble/Orpheus Sinfonia The Creation

Scherzo Ensemble dancers & Orpheus Sinfonia (Photo: Anya Nikolaeva)

Full use was made of the venue, with the orchestra placed in what would normally be the front floor section of the church, allowing for dancers and chorus to use not only the stage but the space around the instrumentalists and audience. The eighteen members of Orpheus Sinfonia played a cut-down version of the score (no trombones, and wind doubling only in the oboes and bassoons) which, rather than highlighting a loss of the usual opulent sound of the work, brought to the performance a salon quality in which, thanks to O’Keeffe’s slick direction, not only were the balance and co-ordination of the ensemble beautifully judged, but there were also plenty of the heterogenous textures one gets from Haydn’s small chamber works. The grander portions (“and there was light”, ‘The heavens are telling’, ‘Sing the Lord, ye voices all’ and so on) were given all the attack and dynamic plenitude they needed, yet there were also some charming, small-scale interplays that brought out the composer’s word painting to the full (in this regard, the contrasting string and woodwind textures under the three angels for ‘On thee each living soul awaits’ were magical).

“…we were treated to five top-notch young voices, carefully chosen for appropriate timbre”

The 13 voice chorus, clad all in black (gloves to match) crept in – both literally (from the back) and dynamically (a well controlled pianissimo) – for their opening ‘And the spirit of God’, and provided a nicely annealed and generally balanced sound for all their subsequent numbers, showing great dynamic and timbral sensitivity to the demands of the drama, whether ranged either side of the orchestra or onstage in a more formal arrangement. Perhaps the only cavil here is that they were a touch top-heavy, and a bit of low welly from an extra bass would have given some of the choruses more anchoring.

It’s usual, for the work, to double up on soloists such that Raphael and Adam are sung by the same bass, and Gabriel and Eve by the same soprano. Not so in this production, where visuals were as important as the music, and we were treated to five top-notch young voices, carefully chosen for appropriate timbre. Edwin Kaye’s bass not only has a commanding edge, but it’s chock full of sonorous lower harmonics – just the ticket for Raphael’s declamatory and descriptive narrative (each word of the storms, winds, thunders, rain and ‘dreary wasteful hail’, and the catalogue of beasts, was given consideration for its character). Sam Harris’ tenor has the lyric clarity of a Bach Evangelist, and it served him well, not only for Uriel’s recitatives but for an enjoyably mannered performance of ‘In native worth’. Anna Gregg’s Gabriel was utterly alluring in its sweetness for ‘With verdure clad’, but there was a steely power there to be heard in her soaring lines over the chorus’ ‘ethereal vaults’. The steel was particularly noticeable once one heard Caroline Blair’s Eve – a voice just as sweet, but with a warmer, honeyed character, perfect for the delivery of ‘Ye purling fountains’, and  a faultless foil for Michael Temporal Darell’s Adam – whose baritone has a pleasing zing to it in the mid range, albeit that it needed a little more heft for the lower notes.

Scherzo Ensemble/Orpheus Sinfonia The Creation

Anna Gregg (Gabriel) & Sam Harris (Uriel) (Photo: Anya Nikolaeva)

The costumes were cleverly chosen to suggest rather than depict; Adam and Eve wore flesh coloured modern clothes and flowers, and the angels were in black and white – each with a wire halo that conjured not – as might be dreaded – a school nativity play but a painting by a quattrocento master.

Each soloist was doubled by a dancer performing, in abstract gesture, visual elements of the sung text. On paper this perhaps sounds a touch vapid, but in reality it was inspiringly conceived and executed. The dancers fetchingly captured the mood of the music with fluid movement, whether onstage and lit in subtly changing colours, or interacting with their ‘other selves’ at the front. Among the truly special moments were: Adam and Eve’s sensuous pas-de-deux to ‘Graceful consort’; Gabriel’s alter ego forming a ‘three graces’ trio with her singer and flautist Nika Pinter for ‘On mighty pens’; the reaching gesture echoed by Raphael and his dancer for ‘the light and flaky snow’ as the lighting simulated slowly falling snowflakes; the dancers gracefully pulling singers onto the stage for the final chorus.

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The Creation review – a fresh look at Haydn’s masterpiece