Orfeo ed Euridice

Music by Gluck
Opera North and Emio Greco | PC
Theatre Royal, Newcastle, and touring
(2004)

If Opera North's Manon Lescaut was savaged by the critics, its Orfeo was positively torn apart, in an orgy reminsicent of the Bacchae descending on Pentheus. It is said - although this may be apocryphal - that it was booed in Edinburgh, where it premiered during the International Festival this year.

It is about as far from a traditional interpretation of the 18th century opera as it is possible to get and some critics were driven to science fiction TV to describe aspects of the production: Orfeo, one told us, looked like something from Star Trek, whilst another described the chorus' costumes as being like Daleks.

But what directors Emio Greco and Pieter Scholten have presented us with is not a version of Gluck's opera: it is a fusion of their work in dance with the opera. The matchmaker in this rather odd marriage was Brian McMasters, the director of the EIF, whose idea it was to bring the two together. Opera North is a company which, although firmly wedded to the traditional opera repertoire, is willing to experiment (as its Eight Little Greats season earlier this year showed), whilst Emio Greco | PC works in a very European experimental dance tradition.

What they have created is a dance piece which runs alongside but independent of the opera, using a movement language and a visual world which is decidedly of the 21st century. The angularity of the movement (reminiscent in places of Mark Morris and, in others, of Pina Bausch, although I mention these for the purposes of illustration, rather than to suggest influence) contrasts with the flowing nature of the 18th century music.

The setting, by Joost Rekveld, is essentially a projection of moving light and vague patterns on three sides, surrounding an incomplete pentacle on the floor, which is completed by light. Henk Danner's subtle lighting so complements the set that it is obvious the two worked in close collaboration.

As for the performances, counter-tenor Daniel Taylor was magnificent as Orfeo and his rendering of Che faro (preceded by a pause the length of which would have had the most experienced actor sweating and brought the audience to a pitch of high tension) was one of the best I have heard. The part, of course, was originally written for a castrato but for a long time has been the province of the alto, and the effect of hearing it sung by a counter-tenor is similar to hearing, for example, Fauré's Pie Jesu sung by a boy rather than a soprano. There is a purity of tone, an other-worldiness, which is so different from the much warmer voice of someone like, say, Janet Baker.

Claire Ormshaw's Amore was a real highlight. She was clearly comfortable with the dance and her voice has a power and richness which contrasts well with the purity of Taylor's.

All in all, a fascinating piece and one which would repay being seen again. It certainly does challenge but the Newcastle audience rose to the challenge: there was sustained applause at the end and a buzz which is very different from the usual warmth of met-expectations, such as we had with Opera North's Così earlier in the week.

"Orfeo ed Euridice" plays at the Lowry, Salford Quays, on 23rd October and the Theatre Royal, Nottingham, on 13th November.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan