By Simon Fearn
Nothing sounds more idyllic than outdoor opera in the Botanic Gardens, and in this sense Durham Opera Ensemble’s production of Christoph Gluck’s Orpheus and Euridice did not disappoint. The end result was as light and airy as the charming setting, potentially not the desired effect when the programme proudly labels the production as tragic.
The opera is a fast and loose interpretation of the Greek myth in which Orpheus unsuccessfully attempts to rescue his wife from the underworld. This production had a somewhat troubled gestation period, with only two weeks to rehearse the opera and the tenor in the chorus being struck down by illness. Although there were a few blunders in the orchestra’s accompaniment and the cast’s acting, it proved to be an enjoyable, if imperfect, afternoon’s entertainment.
After arriving at the gardens, it was clear that the audience mostly consisted of hard-core opera lovers, which was a shame, as I found the production very accessible despite being an opera novice, particularly as it was translated into English. I was incredibly amused to overhear an audience member during the interval enthusing about how the birds were singing in the key the music was performing in. If this was the case, the birds were doing a better job than certain members of the orchestra. There were a few noticeable musical slip-ups, particularly during tricky solo sections. Louis Stockton on the keyboard (here pretending to be a harpsichord) did try his best, but in the end Gluck’s slightly manic rhythms proved too much. Saying this, Thomas Bermejo on flute and Matt Burgess on bassoon had moments where they particularly shone.
Sophie Kidwell took on the role of Orpheus, written for a male alto, but often performed by a woman. She proved a personable protagonist, with her expressive face and voice guiding us to the underworld and back again. Despite her fantastic voice, which was particularly moving during the opera’s opening when she soared above the chorus with her cries of ‘Euridice’, there was little to no characterisation. Whilst she mostly excelled at portraying emotions in bold primary colours, which is essentially the basis of an opera, the audience were left with little sense of what Orpheus was like as a person. She was not a tremendously convincing man either, and her attempted suicide, here by drowning herself in a Perspex box full of water, didn’t have the desired emotional resonance.
Ella Phillips as Euridice was as excellent a singer as Kidwell, with some powerful notes near the top of her register, but unfortunately when she was silent she wasn’t entirely successful in expressing the emotional trauma her character undergoes. When she was first led in by the Blessed Spirits, she did not seem overly perturbed about being dead, and when Orpheus arrived to rescue her I began to think he needn’t have bothered. Her expressive power whilst singing was much better, but not equal to Kidwell’s. Deficiencies in acting in favour of singing quality was also a problem for Emer Action as Amor and the chorus; the latter often slipped out of character when the orchestra stopped playing, and strangely were much better at being Furies than they were at playing Blessed Spirits.
Despite all this, the minimal staging worked well, although I didn’t notice the dead flowers or the ‘broken wedding arch’ until director Crispin Lord patiently explained their significance in the programme. Lord should be congratulated on some effective scenes, including the atmospheric funeral march at the beginning and Orpheus’s frightening encounter with the Furies. The use of a veil to cover Euridice as she dies a second time under Orpheus’s gaze was also an intelligent stylistic decision. But unfortunately the rest of the opera failed to live up to these moments, despite on the whole being fun and accessible. A lot of its impact depended on its outdoor setting and the beautiful summer weather, and despite fantastic vocal performances all round, it failed to have a lasting impact.
Until 13 June, at Botanic Garden, Durham.
Photograph: Crispin Lord