Monteverdi & Striggio, additional music by Jasdeep Singh Degun
Grand Theatre, Leeds
October 14-19, 2022; 2 hr 50 min
(also touring to Newcastle, Nottingham and Salford)
“Orpheus: Monteverdi reimagined”, as Opera North have been advertising it, is a bold attempt at cross-cultural fertilisation. It’s really a co-production with South Asian Arts-uk, a Leeds-based body with which the opera company has been co-operating over two decades in different ways.
This is their first attempt to put on a Western classical opera (L’Orfeo was the first real example in the whole tradition, it’s said) with Asian musicians and singers sharing the whole thing with conventional operatic performers.
The Western end of things is headed by baroque specialist Laurence Cummings, who appears as both musician and (briefly) singer, while the Eastern team is led by Jasdeep Singh Degun, who has composed a fair bit of new music to go with, or replace, the music of 1607 and also, like many of the Asian team, is both singer and instrumentalist.
It's beautifully staged by director Anna Himali Howard (with design by Leslie Travers), and the story is brought into our own time and place. The original, age-old myth tells how Orpheus and the beautiful Eurydice, united in love and happiness, are separated by her tragic death. He determines to visit the underworld to bring her spirit back to earthly life, and even succeeds in persuading Pluto to give her up with one condition. As he leads her out of Hades he must not look back on her beauty, or she will be lost forever. He cannot help himself, and by loving, loses her.
In this production it all begins at the wedding celebration of a white British guy and an Asian girl, in the back garden of a semi-detached house in any city you care to imagine, and all is sweetness and light. The two families and their friends get on brilliantly, and there is song and dance in which all join with respect and enjoyment.
That is itself a symbol of the musical marriage that’s been achieved by the combined forces here. Monteverdi’s music is frequently enriched by the imitative and florid melodic style, and rhythmic invention, of the Indian classical tradition – the Asian musicians perform in their own way, but with support from their Westerners. At times they borrow from each other – much classical Asian music includes improvisation, and in a few set-pieces their voices and instruments unite.
As in Asian tradition, instrumentalists always play seated, the performers are all in view onstage, and easily switch from instrument to vocals when necessary.
The story continues as the happy couple depart for temple rituals, but after Orpheus returns and the fun is in full swing the terrible news comes that Eurydice has been bitten by a snake and died. The scene is changed to a kind of dreamworld copy of the garden, and the characters seen at the wedding become denizens of the land of the dead. The rest plays out as you might expect.
It's all quite leisured and relaxed in the style of the Indian tradition, though Monteverdi’s dramatic interruptions and emotional high spots have their place.
Singing and acting styles, of course, differ in Western opera and the Asian musical heritage, but these performers have made a brave attempt at unifying their approach. Several languages are employed, but thanks to the surtitle screens, we know what’s going on – whether the singing is in Italian, Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, Punjabi or Bengali.
Info and tickets here