Mayfair Theatre, 100 King Edward Street, Kensington, Dunedin

10/10/2010 - 15/10/2010

Otago Festival of the Arts 2010

Production Details

Composed by Monteverdi
translation by John Drummond

Musical director: Matthew Leese
Choreographer: Daniel Belton
Set designer: Brian King
Lighting designer: Martyn Roberts

Presented by Opera Otago

Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (The Story of Orpheus) of 1607 isn’t quite the first opera ever written, but it’s the first great one.

Opera Otago’s new production will present this classic and timeless love story, which is both authentic and contemporary in its staging. Monteverdi tells the story of the great musician who goes down to the world of the dead to rescue his wife Eurydice.

Dunedin choreographer Daniel Belton makes his first foray into Opera with his original dance sequences. Set design is by Wellington Designer Brian King and lighting designer is Martyn Roberts.

Heading the cast is Rebecca Ryan (Eurydice) and Daniel Carberg (Orpheus). L’Orfeo will be accompanied by the Southern Sinfonia. The opera will be sung in John Drummond’s new English translation.

The Mayfair Theatre will transport you to heaven and Hades with this Italian Master’s magical fusion of Greek mythology, classical opera and glorious melody. This will be beautiful and memorable theatre.

Mayfair Theatre, Dunedin
10, 12, 13, 15 October 2010
7.30pm (3 hours)
Otago Festival of the Arts

CAST headed by:
Rebecca Ryan (Eurydice)
Daniel Carberg (Orpheus).

Emmett Hardie
Elle Loui August

the Southern Sinfonia

Opera ,

The more powerful for being unforced

Review by Helen Watson White 13th Oct 2010

Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi’s 1607 opera of the classical myth of Orpheus and Eurydice was a notable first, in a climate of innovation crystallised in the term ‘New Music’. In an exciting new development, chord progressions were replacing the contrapuntal weaving of musical lines familiar in the great church masses of composers like Palestrina.

The Renaissance interest in all things Greek was providing inspiration for theatres built on the pattern of ancient amphitheatres, with raked seating and dimensions that demanded a grand formal style. From the wall behind the actors in Greek tragedy developed a proscenium dividing the audience from the world of the imagination on stage. And in England, along with Shakespeare’s use of classical and European subjects and themes, the dancing – developed in association with court masques – gave us the (French-influenced) ancestor of modern ballet.

As a university town, Dunedin is very well placed to mount a production like this, with all its historical resonances, and Opera Otago has managed — some 400 years after L’Orfeo’s premiere — something of a coup. It is not the opera’s first production here, however; the first New Zealand performance of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (there are others) was in 1976 at Otago University. I remember also a colourful, energetic production of another of Monteverdi’s operas, L’incoronazione di Poppea — probably, like this one, in English — mounted in the new, greatly enlarged apse of St Paul’s Cathedral in the early 1970s.

The reason I’m elaborating on the background to this particular production is that it displays some of the many ways in which Dunedin’s character and heritage informs the Otago Festival of the Arts and makes it distinctive.

The Mayfair Theatre, for a start, was built in the tradition of the European opera houses; it may not have the horse-shoe shape or the tiers of special boxes — it’s a democratic space suited, I recall, to a touring Front Lawn — but it has a grandly decorated proscenium which sets off the stage ‘picture’ very nicely, framing it with remembrances of baroque style carried all the way to the Antipodes. At the same time, the 400-seater is intimate enough that we can see the singers’ finely tuned expressions, and feel we have been allowed the luxury of entertainment meant for the select few at Court.

If the singers are waiting for a ‘review’ of their individual performances, I’m not going to give one, because the success of this production is its wholeness, its integrity. The word ‘opera’ (works) is related to ‘opus’ but also to ‘operations’: creatively it’s an ensemble-based exercise, the work of many hands. (The same was true of Renee’s Shall we Gather at the River, incidentally, in reviewing which I neglected to honour director Louise Petherbridge as conductor of creative outcomes over all…)

I’m giving the whole production an A-plus, because from conception and design to musical and dramatic realization it never falters. No-one lets the side down; put positively, everyone seems to have the same end in mind. There was sustained applause for each of the (comparatively small) band of singers — who manage both arias and ensemble works — for the writing makes no distinction between stars and chorus, the ‘chorus’ being a group of very good soloists.

Only Daniel Carberg is confined to one part, that of Orfeo. Rebecca Ryan sings Euridice and the figure of Music; Sarah Court plays a minor shepherdess besides the messenger Sylvia who brings news of Euridice’s tragic early death; Christie Cook is both a nymph and Hope, Claire Barton-Wilson is first a shepherdess, then Proserpina, queen of the underworld; Alex Wilson, Julien Van Mellaerts, Laurence Mossman and Tim Blackler all play important parts in the story as well as forming a chorus of shepherds in the early Pastoral celebration of the union of Orfeo and Euridice.

Monteverdi chose to create a happy ending for the myth, where after Orfeo breaks Pluto’s conditions and looks at Euridice in the Underworld, he is not punished by eternal separation from her but rescued by Apollo re-uniting the lovers in Heaven. The main hero of the story could be seen as Music itself, with Orfeo’s harp charming the dark-browed boatman Charon to sleep so he can cross the river to Hades to find his love, and Apollo being particularly minded to assist one proficient in the Art.

The audience around me responded well to dancers Emmett Hardie and Elle Loui August, who shadowed the spirits of the famous lovers, intimately echoing their feelings in gesture and mime, sometimes dancing an independent pas de deux that brings to life the words of otherwise statuesque singers. Daniel Belton’s choreography and movement direction has the right balance of qualities, keeping emotion well in check by the formality of style appropriate to the period, but adding a light gracefulness to the players’ dignity. This very difficult style — like the singers’ mannered delivery so completely foreign to anything of today — is managed throughout with complete professionalism. Early music practitioners, besides knowing a lot about the instruments of the period, have to learn also the delicate use of that prime instrument, the body.

A special note on diction: I am very impressed with the singers’ dedication to making the words heard. John Drummond, Blair Professor of Music at Otago, has translated many operas, and his English version of L’Orfeo keeps the high-sounding dignity of the myth while having to find a lot of feminine (usually comical) rhymes.

Conductor Matthew Leese keeps the Continuo players together with the singers in the narrative sections, so they seem entirely naturally combined, and from the first scene the sweet richness of the ensembles fair blows me away.

Always concerted and generous, the ensemble sections — like the whole work — are the more powerful for being unforced. The most important thing, I was taught, about working in the theatre is not to give your power away. The singing may be passionate, the tragedy may be extreme, but there’s always something held in reserve.
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