La descente d’Orphée aux enfers – Opera in two Acts to an anonymous libretto after an episode in Ovid’s Metamorphoses [sung in French with English surtitles]
Orphée – Samuel Boden
Pluton – Henry Waddington
Euridice – Lauren Lodge-Campbell
Daphné – Naho Koizumi
Enone – Katie-Louise Dobson
Arethuze / Proserpine – Lila Chrisp
Ixion – Alexander Chance
Tantale – Lars Fischer
Apollon / Tityé – Jamie Woollard
Vache Baroque Band
Jeanne Pansard-Besson – Director
Laura Jane Stanfield – Designer
Simeon Qsyea – Choreographer
Andrew Ellis – Lighting Designer
Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers
Reviewed: 2 September, 2022
Venue: The Vache, Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire, England
Charpentier’s chamber opera (c.1686) setting the same myth that inspired several composers in the first generation of operatic history is a compact work, lasting barely an hour, but Jeanne Pansard-Besson’s exquisite production makes every detail tell and harnesses its modest resources with remarkable effectiveness. Seeing as the work ends, in the one manuscript source which survives, at the point where Orpheus leaves the Underworld with Euridice, under Pluto’s command not to look back at her, some commentators surmise that a third Act has been lost which completes the tragedy. Or, written on the brink of the Enlightenment, is it possible that the opera ended positively, with Euridice’s successful return to the human world, as Gluck’s great reform opera would do, and as the myth’s earliest operatic treatment, Jacopo Peri’s Euridice (1600), had done?
The musical and literary anti-climax that results from what survives makes it hard to believe that there wasn’t more. But as it stands, the conclusion perhaps feels aptly modern, as Orpheus and Euridice venture into the dark unknown, and the audience is left to make up its own mind as to whether a tragic or triumphant outcome ensues. This production tightens up that cliffhanger by cutting the last chorus of Act Two, ending instead with Pluto’s haunting ordinance, and Orpheus, then Euridice making their way from the stage through the audience into the dusk – just as Euridice had earlier departed from the wedding festivities of Act One along the same route into the surrounding grounds of The Vache to be fatally bitten by a snake.
The innate theatricality of the settings for both Acts are enticingly and convincingly realised. The wedding of the principal characters is enacted during the Overture, and the festivities follow, with the guests all dressed in contemporary costume in beautiful pastel colours, like the vision of a modern Arcadia, complementing the surrounding landscape for this open-air performance. Whilst Euridice and her female guests collect flowers – celebrating the natural order which will, ironically, soon cause her death – the men play croquet. In the second Act, the scene in Hades is played out as a sinister black and white harlequinade by its denizens (the wheel to which Ixion is eternally condemned is wryly symbolised by his ruff, for instance). They spring to life in quirky choreography, in time with Charpentier’s music at that point, demonstrating the power of music which Orpheus has revealed to them. But the singers’ movements and acting are consistently deft throughout the whole opera, enhanced by the presence of two professional dancers of the BirdGang Ltd group who provide still more compellingly this essential component of French Baroque opera. It is also dramatically potent to have Henry Waddington silently preside over the marriage in Act One as the priest in charge, before reappearing in the singing role of Pluto in the Underworld, underlining the connections that Charpentier’s largely Catholic audience would have drawn between the rituals and institutions of their religion and Classical myth. Orpheus’s famed ability to charm even the most obtuse minds and spirits through music is touchingly represented by the solo piece for viola da gamba, interpolated before Act Two in the Underworld begins, and elegantly played by Kate Conway.
Fine performances from the singers contribute to the overall sense of lightly-worn solemnity in this re-telling of myth. Above all Samuel Boden sustains a soberly lyrical line in true haute-contre register, without any roughness, ensuring that musically the work remains squarely focused upon the title character. Henry Waddington is a commanding presence both in voice and on the stage as Pluto, but also enigmatically capricious as when he raises a wry smile on hatching the idea to impose upon Orpheus the condition that he must not look round, doubtless suspecting that this is impossible to achieve. Lauren Lodge-Campbell has little to sing as Euridice, but despatches that appealingly, whilst Lila Chrisp exudes more vocal bite as Proserpina, Pluto’s consort and the Queen of the Underworld. The other singers achieve conspicuous success not only in their solo roles but as much for the mellifluous blend they attain when performing in ensemble for the choruses. The plangent trio of damned souls, Ixion, Tantalus, and Titye, is particularly notable in that respect, led by Alexander Chance’s incisive haute-contre timbre.
The one-to-a-part Vache Baroque Band give expertly agile instrumental support, discreetly positioned on stage and formally attired as though a part of the wedding and the theatrical ritual that unfolds. Textures are generally streamlined rather than sonorous, ensuring an alert dramatic pace, and rhythms are vital too, imparting suitable momentum in the dance sections. The combination of the three viols creates an especially moving moment as they accompany the lamentations of the figures in Hades.
Performance and production together not only stimulate the senses and emotions of the audience but instil the tantalising desire – like Orpheus – to want to turn back and experience it again from the beginning.