Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

5th& 7th March.

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L’Orfeo is the earliest surviving opera that is still regularly performed today. The myth itself, which predates our current calendar, has inspired everything from films to comics to computer games. Orpheus has the chance to reclaim his wife from death: all he has to do is avoid looking back at her until they have walked together from the underworld. If you’re not familiar with Gluck’s 1774 opera though, you might be more surprised by the ending of this well known tale than you thought possible. One version of the myth ends with Orpheus being torn limb from limb by hell-beasts; in my favourite, Orpheus, having discovered the secrets of the underworld is struck him down with lightning by Zeus on his return, because that stuff’s classified information. Anyone looking for this sort of gore will be disappointed by this production in that respect.

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What you absolutely could not be disappointed by is the vocal and musical talent on display. In these days of political correctness gone mad they’ve done away with castratos, so the Scottish Opera have done the next best thing and got a women to play Orpheus. Her name is Caitlin Hulcup, and she’s truly outstanding. Her voice resonates with the power and passion of grief, and, in character, is completely convincing, completely consistent, from start to finish. The chorus themselves are overwhelmingly excellent, the orchestra thrilling from the prelude, which reassures on of the stirrings of spring, to the triumphant end. It is a thrill to peek into the gleaming pit and see Kenneth Montgomery conduct so proficient an orchestra. The musicians move as one body, the nature of their synchronicity making it impossible to pick out individual players, really, but the swell of thie strings, with eighteen violinists alone, is truly stirring, and it is impossible not to note the beauty of the harpsichord, played by Soojeong Joo in a manner that quite rolls back the centuries, however modern other elements of the production mat be.

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One of the most strikingly modern elements of the adaptation is costume. Sometimes these are simply baffling. Death is an ominous figure in a black PVC mac, wearing bright red marigolds. The furies are too busy doing modern dance in red latex-y jumpsuits to present much of an obstacle for our hero. At one point they form an amorphous bulk that and moves with such synchronicity that one cannot help but be impressed, but all this could as easily represent an orgiastic fetish party as any sort of  serious test of Orpheus’s mettle. In this respect Orpheo Ed Euridice is a quest narrative with no real obstacles. The set too, is modern, minimalist. A giant perspex box, basically.  The chorus as mourners, dressed as though they have just stepped out of Renoir’s The Umbrellas,flanked the cube, brolly’s glistening, reminded me of rainy days at Quarter-mile, rather than a mausoleum, but for all that, it was extremely striking. Orpheus, from the start, is hard to sympathise with. Leave me that I might mourn, he tells the chorus, but first fill the marble tomb with wreathes, and with purple flowers. He then writhes about on said flowers, wailing endlessly, albeit extremely tunefully, for Eurydice.

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Amore –love- in this production played by Ana Quintans, appears as a sort of rockabilly Lauren Bacall, smoking a fag in a fabulous cocktail dress and generally seeming alike a lot more fun than anyone or anything else in the production. Because she finds Orpheus more compellingly heartbroken than any mortal before or since, Amore explains over the course of some vocal gymnastics that are genuinely impossible seeming, she decides to grant him an opportunity to reclaim his beloved from the underworld. I don’t know if it’s because Orpheus is done up like Sebastian Flyte, so completely the effete toff, and in glowing white from head to toe, but he smacks of old world privilege so completely, that a class reading becomes almost impossible to avoid, and harder still to shake.  In Hades, The Lost Souls, done up in red and black and muck, in flamenco bits and bobs, look sort of like a Hispanic Les Mis, tatty, poor, and distinctly gitano. They initially refuse to cooperate with him, and I don’t blame them. His very presence there, immune to harm,  feels like an incredibly extreme example of slum-dog tourism, like a banker holidaying in Israel, popping over to Gaza on a gawking tour for an afternoon to see how the other half live; telling them, “ah yes, your real world dysentery and air-strikes sort of poverty is bad, but just try to imaginemy poverty of spirit.” They are in actual hell, forever, irredeemably lost, whist Orpheus is just passing through, but “I have my own hell within me and feel it in my heart” he assures them, and starts moaning again about how terribly difficult his uniquely privileged situation is. The furies and lot souls, however, are clearly less jaded than me and swallow his crapola within minutes.

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The second act opens in Elysium, with the wood section trilling like birdsong, and a ballet so light that when their feet hit the ground the noise they makes seems incongruous to graceful fluidity of he dance, Then Orpheus appears and demands to know where Eurydice is. He is reassured that she is on her way, and the ballet resumes, but Orpheus watches it impatiently, as one might listen to hold music, then interrupts to tell anyone who will listen how appalling it is that he’s being kept waiting in this manner. Ugh. I could go on, but you get the gist. The singing is absolutely wonderful, the orchestra beyond impressive, there is some captivating dance here- and some truly missable stuff too. There is also a distasteful confusion of love and privilege here. “All the world should serve beauty’s reign” sing the chorus at the finale, clutching cocktail glasses, wearing tuxedos and ball-dresses, and generally looking like the upper-deck of the Titanic, tragically un-drowned.  Where is Zeus when you need him?

 Reviewer : Katie Craig

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