Magazine article The Spectator

Act of Sabotage

Magazine article The Spectator

Act of Sabotage

Article excerpt

Orfeo Opera North Madama Butterfly Royal Opera

Exactly 400 years ago, 24 February 1607, the first great opera received its première in Mantua. It's a crucial date in the history of the arts in Western Europe, and it would have been agreeable to be able to report that Opera North, in its new production of Monteverdi's Orfeo, did it justice. And musically speaking it would not have been hopelessly wide of the mark.

But what we saw was as ferocious an act of sabotage as you are likely to see in a tour of the world's operatic stages, whatever they may be doing, and the competition for impertinent inanity is intense. Paul Steinberg's set is an uglily lit room, with empty niches on to which some of the performers jump, and with cheap modern utility furniture. The costumes, by Doey Luethi, range from early-17th century to contemporary punk, including mixtures of the two. The singers who aren't actually singing form the audience on stage, a badly behaved one, possibly a joke by the director Christopher Alden.

The heart-stopping first tragic moment in opera, when the Messenger announces to Orfeo that Euridice is dead, is greeted with cackling laughter. There is a moderate amount of random applause onstage, too, and an immoderate use of tape to bind Euridice to the back wall, and for other purposes, tape that is pulled noisily from the spool and torn off still more intrusively. The notion that many of us have cherished that, however tiresome modern producers may be, the music is at least left intact, is here decisively refuted.

There is a pantomime feel about the show, with Orfeo slumped in his chair while the rest of the furniture is piled up round him, and of course taped together, while La Musica, who in the person of Amy Freston sports a Principal Boy's legs, and does the splits in a niche, wears a gigantic headpiece.

Orfeo himself is portrayed as a nerd, with several layers of woollies, and an aggressive lack of any appeal except for his singing: this is a cruel way to treat Paul Nilon, a major artist whose vocal performance is the main and almost only reason for visiting this violation. When Orfeo's father Apollo, who has been busy recording all his son's utterances throughout the past hour and a half, comes to his assistance at the end, it is to comb his hair and make him look still more foolish, in general to behave like a solicitous chimpanzee.

Try as one might, it isn't possible to ignore such calculated idiocy and concentrate on the music -- I did try hard, but curiosity and rage made me open my eyes to see what the latest piece of interference was. …

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