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Hadestown

Anaïs Mitchell
Union Chapel, London
(2011)

Hadestown publicity graphic

In 2006, singer-songwriter Anais Mitchell created Hadestown, a live 'folk opera' with theatre director Ben T. Matchstick and musical arranger Michael Chorney. They toured the performance around New England before Mitchell recorded the songs she had written with some of the most celebrated indie-folk singers around. Justin Vernon of Bon Iver performs, along with Greg Brown and the Hadden Triplets. It soon became a critically acclaimed album, and now London audiences have been treated to an intimate concert performance of the songs at the, ever atmospheric, Union Chapel.

The opera is based on the ancient Greek myth of the poet Opheus and his doomed quest to rescue his wife Eurydice from the underworld. Mitchell has transposed the setting to the U.S. simultaneously evoking our "Depression-era past, the current financial disaster (though it was written before the stock market collapse), and a post-apocalyptic future." The narrative driven songs recount a world in which people hide behind walls as they try to preserve freedom, and personal wealth.

At the Union Chapel performance Mitchell was joined onstage by an impressive list of folk luminaries including Thea Gilmore, Martin Carthy and Jim Moray. Jackie Leven commandingly narrates the story, and our cast of folksters portray their characters through delicate harmonies and persuasive hints of the varying personalities onstage. Mitchell obviously has an edge over the rest of the collective, since she so intimately knows the material. As Eurydice, she is beautifully sweet, with her unique Joanna Newsom-esque voice sailing into the rafters of the church. Jim Moray is impressively confident as Orpheus, delicately finding the balance between the brash and bold notes amongst the more delicate and subtle moments.

Wallis Bird, Nuala Kennedy and Sharon Lewis have great fun as The Fates and their harmonies are exquisitely moving. I would buy tickets to see this threesome perform together. It is Thea Gilmore as Persephone who steals the show however. With a slight smirk, her silky smooth, jazzy renditions are sumptuous and sexy. I was completely lost in her voice.

Hadestown is a remarkable piece of work. I'm hoping that one of the reasons for mounting this concert performance was to showcase the possibilities to the powers that be at the Royal Opera House and the English National Opera. The piece is crying out for a full production. And they'll certainly have an audience: for a cozy encore the musicians and artists sat on the edge of the stage delighting in the memorable melody of 'When the Chips Are Down" - they had the entire church singing along joyfully.

Reviewer: Terry O'Donovan