Tuesday 29 January 2013

Silent Opera - L'Orfeo

Silent Opera - L'Orfeo credit Oliver Hyde-Tetley
Silent Opera - L'Orfeocredit Oliver Hyde-Tetley
Opera has a fundamental problem with intimacy. Whether it be the need to coordinate singers and orchestra, or the fact that big voices are distinctly uncomfortable heard close up, the difficulties of bringing audiences closer to the drama seem insurmountable. Despite a huge number of successful immersive theatre performances, and several great productions from a cappella vocal groups such as I Fagiolini with their shows The Full Monteverdi and Tallis in Wonderland, there have been very few opera companies that have attempted a move away from an ‘audience there - stage here - never the twain shall meet’ kind of approach.

Step forward Silent Opera, a new company formed in 2011. The idea came to founder Daisy Evans when she was listening to music on the train and found herself transported away from the environment around her. So audiences to their productions are given wireless headphones to wear as they arrive which relay a mixture of live and recorded sound. It’s not a new idea – there was even a trend for silent discos where people danced around to music that only they could hear – but Silent Opera have cornered the market in applying it to this art form.

The result, as demonstrated in their latest production of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo which runs until 10 February, is an impressive experiment. It takes place in the atmospheric (if somewhat remote) setting of an old riverside warehouse in London’s Docklands, directly opposite the O2 arena. (Trinity Buoy Wharf, postcode E14 0JY) The audience enters a space bounded by two main stages – each with live instrumentalists – and with benches set around the edge.  Performers start to mingle with the audience – dancers and singers in strange costumes and make-up brushing past us as they move back and forth. The show’s prologue immediately sets out the show’s stall – the orchestral accompaniment from the recording made last year is mixed with Anna Dennis’s live singing as Musica. The singers wear earpieces and discrete microphones (much like the ones used in musicals and pop shows these days), and they in turn listen to the recorded orchestra as well the live musicians – harpsichord, organ, two theorbos and harp. I see some of the audience slip their headphones off so they can hear the singers in situ, but most of us keep them on. I didn't find any problem with the sound – thanks to the absolutely flawless technical work every single recorded entry was bang on time, and the little bit of extra reverberation added around the singers’ sound actually made everything sound more realistic for me, avoiding the raw tone you get from having an opera singer in your face.

If the first half (Acts 1 and 2) felt a bit static, that impression lifted completely after the interval when the audience was ushered into another section of the building where the gates of Hades and the river Styx were depicted with a beautiful set designed by Katherine Heath. From then on it felt like we were much more part of the drama, with the action taking place all around us. The audience followed the characters on their journey into the underworld and we moved back again into the first set for the final act.

Silent Opera - L'Orfeo credit Oliver Hyde-Tetley
Silent Opera - L'Orfeo, credit Oliver Hyde-Tetley
Although in the published version of L’Orfeo the hero is led up to the heavens by Apollo, there is an original version of the libretto where he is told he cannot escape the anger of the gods. In this production a member of the audience gets the chance to choose what happens to Orfeo, and the cast either perform the original ending or a newly composed version in which he is damned. Friday’s show was apparently the first time he was chosen for salvation – clearly audiences prefer hell fire these days.

There was some really fantastic singing from all the cast. Anna Dennis was excellent as Musica and Prosperina looking suitably imperious in both roles. Callum Thorpe was a superbly menacing Plutone, sounding rich and rounded as he came up with the ingenious curse that eventually condemns Euridice to hell when Orfeo looks back, and the young mezzo Emilie Renard really stood out as the messenger, conveying every word of her sad text powerfully. And William Berger as Orfeo was absolutely excellent – covering the huge changes of mood effortlessly and really engaging the audience in his plight.

Both recorded and live musicians were great, and despite the singers often being a long way away from the instrumentalists, the ensemble never rocked.

I could have done without the posturing dancers who seemed to me to detract from the action by their over-dramatic writhings, and I couldn't at all understand the decision to switch from English to Italian in the second half, but in the end these were minor niggles.

Emerging from my headphones I felt I had been really immersed in the action in a way that often eludes me in the traditional opera house. It’s an ambitious experiment, and is definitely worth the trek to Docklands to experience it.

Running until 10 February. Details and booking from the Silent Opera website.

Guest posting: Kieran Cooper

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