Orfeo ed Euridice

Music by Christoph Willibald Gluck; libretto by Raniero de’ Calzabigi
Opera North
Leeds Grand Theatre

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Fflur Wyn (Eurydice) Credit: Justin Slee
Daisy Brown (Amore) Credit: Justin Slee
Antony Hermus (conductor) Credit: Justin Slee

The doomed romance of Orpheus and Eurydice is one of the most enduringly popular Greek myths, exerting a powerful influence on the cultural imagination. However, this is hardly surprising given the story’s focus on the transformative power of art, not to mention its moving depiction of love, loss and grief. For the Baroque scholar Frederick W Sternfield, Orpheus represents "the spirit of music itself which conquers death and time."

For its autumn season, Opera North has tasked itself with staging different versions of the Orpheus myth. In its thrillingly ambitious staging of Monterverdi’s Orpheus—first performed in 1607 and widely regarded as the first operatic masterpiece—the company melded the original’s Baroque score with Indian classical music from Jasdeep Singh Degun to startling effect. In Orpheus in the Record Shop—a collaboration with Leeds Playhouse—the company collaborated with the playwright and rapper Testament to create an updated version of the myth which relied on spoken word and beatboxing.

Given the boldness of these two productions—both of which approach the myth in imaginative ways—Orfeo ed Euridice feels like a more modest undertaking. A more charitable interpretation, however, would be that the stripped-back nature of this concert staging allows the emotion of the central plot to shine through. Furthermore, the minimalism of the set design, which consists primarily of a raised dais and a starry backdrop, makes a suitable match for Gluck’s deliberately simple score.

Unlike other versions of the Orpheus myth, Gluck’s opera begins in medias res: Eurydice (Fflur Wyn) has already died, plunging her husband Orpheus (Polly Leech) into a deep despair. Moved to pity, the love god Amore (Daisy Brown) grants Orpheus safe passage to the underworld, and promises that he can return to the surface with his lost love—so long as he doesn’t look at her until they have reached the light of day.

In most versions of this story, Orpheus looks back at Eurydice at the last minute and loses her forever. I would argue that it is this sting in the tale which gives the myth its extraordinary resonance, conveying something profound about human frailty. For this reason, I find the decision to give the opera a happy ending—in which the two star-crossed lovers are reunited—rather unfulfilling. Indeed, it reminded me of Nahum Tate’s 17th-century rewrite of King Lear in which the titular monarch lives long enough to regain his throne.

That being said, these quibbles are not the responsibility of Opera North. Polly Leech makes for a moving Orpheus, particularly during her rendition of the famous aria “Che faro senza Euridice”, and Fflur Wyn is reliably excellent as Eurydice. Daisy Brown shines in the small but crucial role of Amore, and the Chorus of Opera North bring life to a range of eclectic characters, including shepherds, nymphs, furies and spirits.

With Orfeo ed Euridice, Gluck sought to create an opera that avoids the plot contrivances and vocal virtuosity of its predecessors, focusing instead on emotional and narrative directness. Gluck’s score may lack the fireworks of other operas, but the Orchestra of Opera North played it with verve and feeling.

Reviewer: James Ballands