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BWW Review: ORFEO ED EURIDICE / ZANETTO, Arcola Outside

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Grimeborn is back in a new space but providing same thrill of opera performed up close

BWW Review: ORFEO ED EURIDICE / ZANETTO, Arcola Outside

BWW Review: ORFEO ED EURIDICE / ZANETTO, Arcola Outside Orfeo falls to temptation and turns to embrace his wife, Euridice, and so the Gods exact their price for his failure to keep up his side of the bargain, as she dies and he despairs.

Christoph Willibald Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice is a familiar story but it has gained an added poignancy in Covid times, as people around the world must maintain their distance from loved ones under the threat of the capricious virus. Unlike Orfeo's visual prohibition, it's hugging that the virus forbids, but the pain of distance is the same, the hurt of supposed rejection (especially for some of the elderly) poorly understood and the stakes just as high.

Lysanne van Overbeek's Barefoot Opera returns to Grimeborn after a two year gap to embrace the boutique opera festival's aesthetic with both hands. Graffitied wooden boxes are scattered about the stage, there's a bit of traffic noise leaking in from North London and our lovers have a touch of the Dalston hipster about them. Emma Roberts gets to do much of the heavy lifting as Orfeo and sings beautifully, her mezzo-soprano ringing out through a somewhat unforgiving acoustic space. Lizzie Holmes, as Euridice, has less to do, but her soprano cut through the heavy early evening air as her tragic fate overtook her. A thank you too to Katie Blackwell, who stepped in at short notice to give Amore a menacing, lurking presence, ready to exact the full penalty for any transgression of the deal.

Grimeborn's restrictions have always worked very well in the main Arcola Theatre, a tight space that lends itself to a common intensity that seeps back and forth across the fourth wall. With seats spaced out and a canvas roof, the Arcola Outside tented area dissipates dramatic tension all too easily, requiring the singers to act "bigger" (for want of a better word), adding movement and lighting to compensate for the unique circumstances of Covid times. Maybe it's unfair to request such a leaching of operatic conventions into musical theatre's stylings, but the impact of proximity that so thrills when opera is sung up close and personal is a rare and fragile commodity and requires continual support to work to its fullest potential.

All of which is born out in the second opera on the double bill, Pietro Mascagni's Zanetto, in which Holmes returns in a bias-cut evening gown as the lovelorn courtesan, Silvia and Roberts gets to do that sexy "woman vamping it up as a man" schtick in the trouser role as the eponymous Zanetto.

Now the intensity is dialled to 11 pretty much from the start, as Silvia describes her materially successful but empty life, a plaything for a string of lovers who see her as an object rather than a rounded person with emotional and spiritual needs. When she sees the young chancer, Zanetto, she is instantly struck by the sensation that he is the man who will fulfil her destiny - quite literally, the man of her dreams. Ironically, he is on the way to Florence to see if he can find favour with the famous Silvia, but she never lets on her true identity, knowing that he would be doomed to the same facile life at court if she did.

It breaks your heart to see the tragedy that Holmes brings to Silvia's dilemma, especially offset by Roberts' casual, if unwitting, rejections of her cautious invitations. The music (keys and bass under musical director Lesley Anne Sammons) tells the story as much as the singing as the not-lovers circle each other never breaching the chasm that lies between them. Not for the first time at an opera, you fight the urge to leap forward to intervene and set them on the road to happiness.

It's important to accept the self-imposed limitations of Grimeborn and to embrace the opportunities that come with them. This double-bill sees that balance tilt both ways, but never fails to present the unique qualities of the festival's ethos with commitment and technical precision. As happens with live opera, the music and singing transcends space and time and leaves us in wonder at The Miracles wrought by voices and instruments weaving in and out of our senses.

Orfeo ed Euridice / Zanetto is at the Arcola Outside until 8 September.

Photo Peter Mould


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