This original, moving reworking of Orfeo is a cross-cultural event that for once does justice to both cultures involved. Monteverdi’s music-drama of 1607 is the first great opera of the Western tradition, telling the story of Orpheus’s journey to the underworld to find his dead wife Eurydice, only to lose her again on the return because he cannot resist looking back to see her. Musically it unites old-style madrigals and the new world of baroque declamation in recitative.
So Orfeo is already a forward-looking melting-pot of styles, and thus an ideal candidate for experiment and adventure. In their collaboration, Monteverdi specialist Laurence Cummings (who directed the original Orfeo at Garsington this summer) and South Asian music director Jasdeep Singh Degun (who has composed new non-western sections for the opera) have let their musical traditions react and feed off each other: free recitative makes a powerful link with the oriental influences that can arguably be glimpsed in Monteverdi’s idiom.
The setting is a suburban garden, decked out for the wedding of Orpheus (Nicholas Watts) and Eurydice (Ashnaa Sasikaran), with musicians of both traditions set around the stage. The concept is cemented in the prologue by La Musica: here there are two Musics, English (Amy Freston) and Indian (Deepa Nair Rasiya): unfortunately, the addition of contrasted but equal Indian elements to Monteverdi’s score makes the whole work over-extended.
So the concision of the original is missing, but its power is still evident as Silvia the Messenger (Kezia Bienek) arrives with the news of Eurydice’s death. At the entrance to the underworld, Caronte (Kavitaj Singh) has a fine solo scene before Orpheus’s great aria ‘Possente spirto’ which Watts sings magnificently with instruments from both traditions. The staging by Anna Himali Howard is effectively tableau-like and ritualistic, as Eurydice is stolen back from Orpheus’s gaze and he is returned to the garden.
Orpheus’s fate is contrasted in the two surviving versions of Monteverdi’s original: in its printed libretto he is destroyed by Bacchae, while in the score he is rescued by Apollo. The immensely touching conclusion of this new version is that Apollo becomes a guru-god (Kirpal Singh Panesar) and duets harmoniously with Orpheus in Monteverdi’s music; then a South Asian ensemble closes the show.
The bravery of this collaboration of cultural equals is admirable, and even if not everything works in the mingling of musics this is nevertheless a thought-provoking experiment, superbly performed by all.
Touring until Nov 19. Tickets: operanorth.co.uk