Gluck’s masterpiece has a disturbing edginess which makes it refreshingly astringent. Beverley Brommert reviews

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Director Matthew Wild. Conductor Tim Murray. Choreographer Louisa Talbot. Cast: Fleur Barron, Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi, Brittany Smith and Members of the Cape Town Opera Chorus, with the Cape Town Pops Orchestra. At The Baxter Theatre, until September 7, 2019. BEVERLEY BROMMERT reviews

For all its celebration of human love, its floral décor and tender passages, this production of Gluck’s masterpiece has a disturbing edginess which makes it refreshingly astringent. Even a happy ending wrought by the compassion of Amour (Cupid) for Orphée’s anguish is ambiguous, leaving the audience wondering whether Eurydice falls gently asleep after reunion with her beloved, or whether she dies for the third time, her death accepted at last with quiet resignation by Orphée? Both interpretations are equally plausible.

Screened in monochrome

A brief prologue offers visual interest while the overture is played with all the brio befitting the exuberance of a surprise engagement party, that of the same-sex couple Orphée and Eurydice; screened in monochrome like a black-and-white movie, it has the latent nostalgia of an old film recording bygone festivity, a nameless sadness at odds with its playfulness.

Then we are plunged into the sombre reality of Act One: just a few days later, Orphée is grappling with grief at the untimely demise of Eurydice, the only glimmer of hope offered by Amour… the familiar myth unfolds thereafter to deliver its agenda of courage, determination, provisional triumph, disastrous loss (again) and ultimate redemption through love and the power of music.

Unusually in opera, there is a strong element of dance and movement incorporated into the narrative as physical theatre is fused with vocal performance.

Louisa Talbot has brought her choreographic skill in this genre to complement the Orphic legend, and the CTO chorus rise as one to the challenge of expressive body language and synchronised ensemble while singing with their accustomed lustre.

Cerberus, instead of being impersonated by a single dancer wearing three heads, appears as three individuals sporting sinister canine masks; their antics have equal shares of grace and ferocity.

Arresting tableaux and evocative lighting

A combination of arresting tableaux and evocative lighting by Kobus Rossouw adds significantly to the power of this production, especially in acts 3 and 4.

Colour is used sparingly throughout, which makes the ruddy glow of hell all the more striking. Violence in the Underworld is pervasive, as gleaming knives warn of ruthlessness in the face of any insubordination.

A cast reduced to three principals (with a chorus) places huge demands upon the trio, and mezzo-soprano Fleur Barron is magnificent as Orphée, her stellar performance underpinned efficiently by sopranos Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi (Eurydice) and Brittany Smith (Amour). All three muster convincing portrayals of their personae as they navigate the vocal demands of those roles.

Barron’s richly resonant, multi-layered voice contrasts pleasingly with the lighter register of her fellow performers, climaxing effortlessly in the exquisite aria J’ai perdu mon Eurydice at the beginning of Act Four. After a muted start, Mkhwanazi warms beautifully to the sorrowful accents of a plaintive Eurydice, and Smith sustains youthful impishness whenever she appears.

This production might not correspond to everyone’s idea of staging Orphée et Eurydice, with its quirky details (such as a cassette-player instead of a harp to deliver Orphée’s musical prowess) and disconcerting take on the dénouement; however, its polish and originality ensure an evening of rewarding opera, sleekly accompanied by an orchestra under Tim Murray’s baton.

What: Orphée et Eurydice review
When: 3, 5 September, 7.30pm to 9pm, 7 September 2019, 6pm to 7.30pm
Where: Baxter Theatre, Main Rd, Rondebosch, Cape Town