The story of Orpheus and his journey into the underworld to retrieve his fallen love Eurydice and bring her back to the suface world without looking at her is a story that I'm familiar with. Orfeo ed Euridice, the 18th century opera by Christoph Willibald Gluck, is however a piece of work that I am not familiar with, so tonight's bold production by Scottish Opera was a bit of a theatre mystery night for me.
On paper, this work with ballet dancers, 1950s Dior inspired fashion and absolutely minimal sets had the potential to be a "train wreck", but for me, all these odd elements worked amazingly well on stage tonight to produce an outstanding piece of work.
This is a very simple story of a man making a deal with mischievous gods who saw man as amusement mainly, and simple tales work best for me as they are so much easier to follow. There are only three principal characters in this story Orfeo (Caitlin Hulcup - Mezzo Soprano), Euridice (Lucy Hall - Soprano) and Amore Goddess of Love (Ana Quintans - Soprano).
This is an all female lead performance as we are following the original Italian opera by Gluck, and when writing the part of Orfeo he kept with tradition and wrote the male lead for a Castrato voice. As no one seems to want to suffer that much for their art now, the part is played by the closest modern approximation to the vocal range (a female Mezzo Soprano).
Caitlin Hulcup has a lot of work to do in this performance and is on stage most of the time. Dressed in a white suit on an almost stark black stage, and on her own for periods, she has to put in a very strong perfomance to make this part work. There is nowhere to hide on this very stark stage, no distractions such as big set pieces, just nothing except a white spotlight at times. Fortunately for all of us, this was a great performance and judging from the end of show applause, pretty much everyone in the theatre thought so too. Lucy Hall as Euridice gives an equally good performance and again the minimalist set allows nothing to detract from her duets with Orfeo on stage. Ana Quintans as Amore though gets some of the best stage time for me tonight. Ana is a singer who specialises in works from this period and although she is only on stage at the beginning and end of the story, the wonderful 1950s Dior inspired costume (simple black top and wide pink polka dot skirt) make her character really stand out on stage. Ana has that wonderful 1950s Grace Kelly inspired "fashion plate" pose down to a fine art. Let us not forget of course that she has an outstanding voice and puts in a wonderful character part performance on stage.
This brings us to the set and costume design by Johan Engels (who sadly passed away in November 2014). This is a very imaginative piece of visual theatre work. The costume design is heavily influenced by Dior's "New Look" and everyone gets that look. It is nice to see the chorus get the great costumes too as well as the principal leads. The Furies in the Underworld take a strong visual reference from the Jean Cocteau film "Orphee" and set against the mainly black stage look at times sinister.
The only real set item on stage is a large clear perspex cube. This rotating cube acts as the portal between the worlds and allows for some very clever lighting to change the settings atmosphere of the story as it unfolds.
What about the ballet dancers? Well, on the instrumental parts to the music they work amazingly well, and in particular in the Elysian Fields sequence. Using them was a bold move and it worked.
Before this performance, I was not familiar with the music of Christoph Gluck (conducted tonight by Kenneth Montgomery), and I liked the music a lot. I will need to source some more of his work.
This was an enjoyable evening out. Great vocal performances, a set design that somehow worked amazingly well (and I normally like my big set pieces and not minimalistic ones) great costumes and great music... and I have found a new composer to find more out about.
Review by Tom King