Les Malheurs d’Orfee / Le Vin Herbe

Royal Conservatoire Scotland

March 4-11

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This being my very first live operatic experience, I was thrilled to be there, & all tangled up in an expectant mood. I took my seat to think about the night to come. The half size orchestra were warming up and the stage was set with easy-going props of small buildings purposed for trade, and a town set in the distance. We were to see two classics tonight – Les Malheurs d’Orfee & Le Vin Herbe the converging of the evenings two performances a special occasion for Opera aficionados. Though I discovered there is a question among such folks as to whether these are actually operas at all.

The first of these two stories of love took the form of that operatic phenomena that I was expecting & excited to see. Acting, music and singing saw the characters compliment the story in song, bringing the lovers to life every time; Orphee, played by Alexey Gusev, and Euridice, played by Anne-Marie Loveday. The success of the evening’s first performance came from the glowing confidence, delicate moments & sheer power of the 12 or so cast members who put their voices together creating a unison for the story. This was a stunning start to my burgeoning sense of operatic appreciation, with those concise 40 minutes dreamed up by Milhaud a perfect taster for the art, with the Thracian bard himself singing as if he was on the slopes of Parnassus.

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The stage was recast for the second performance of the evening; a much more opened space compared to the first. The orchestra now sat in a reworked way, and there were boxes across the stage in a semicircle with the addition of a singular pianist. The difference in stage-setting was also a difference in the style of writing between the two operas. As Le Vin Herbe rolled by in its many times bleak delivery, every dialogue seemed to be about death and was prolonged, so if there is a query as to whether this was an opera or not it was certainly inclusive in its makeup to become one. During the performance there were strong emotional responses from myself, and I presume for the other members of the audience. Some of the scenes I felt I could barely even live through, but to my delight there were long periods that I found held me both in gaze and in thought. The French libretto came deep and hard, but had a poetry and flow that was truly beautiful, in their inimitable concise shapes.

As the scenes were swapped about, positioning the boxes to suit the story, here was a great feeling that Frank Martin’s original vision was springing to life.  There was a bleakness to the story that comes from its tragic roots, as the wind blows through sails and dresses. There was a certain dreadfulness that was great as the title of the show indicated. Because of the voyage in forests and at sea, it reminded me of Greek literature of Virgil or Homer. As the story blends such idioms, the many levels of greatness in the work became simultaneously apparent; musical performance and stagecraft which were especially adhering. They offered us  a greatly dramatic vocal prose and softened down, without the comfort of peace or tranquility, to quietly whispering vocals of the pain of love. For me it was at times harder to understand the visual aspect that was inclusive of the singing. I understood the words fine, having read them on the prompter, but there was a sense of mystery to the act of observing the performers at hand. They seemed strange to me, as if they were there and not there at the same time, and when they held my gaze I felt slightly intimidated squirming in my seat. I guess I was feeling the true power of opera.

The only real reprieve during the performance from the tearful content was when they all sang together, blowing one’s mind as the wind assaults the sails; the great verbosity and conclusive acts of valour between  various components coming together for a real spectacle of heart wrenching tragedy. I think that all these details were born of deliberation, and every detail created with purpose. In the highs and lows of this retelling of an ancient theme and this 90-year old story, If you’re interest is piqued by an evening of bright, yet bleak performance, I would recommend that you see this show, as a most splendid & soul-stirring night out.

Reviewer:  Daniel Donnelly