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Monteverdi Orfeo

English National Opera The Coliseum, 15 & 26 April 2006

Director – Chen Shi-Zheng
– Tom Pye
Costumes – Elizabeth Caitlin Ward
Lighting – Scott Zielinski

Music / Hope – Elizabeth Watts
Orfeo – John Mark Ainsley
Euridice – Ruby Philogene
Messenger – Wendy Dawn Thompson
Charon – Brindley Sherratt
Propserpina – Stephanie Marshall
Pluto – Jeremy White
Apollo – Tom Randle
ENO Orchestra in collaboration with OAE/Laurence Cummings

Pictured: John Mark Ainsley with Chen Shi-Zheng

Orfeo is a work which seems to bring out an enterprising streak in the ENO planning team.


In 1969, in those heady early days at the Coliseum, the work was given in Italian (a synopsis of the plot provided with the free cast list) with a group of specialist period musicians, termed the Sadlers Orchestra, assembled and conducted by Raymond Leppard; a superb, ground breaking production, never to be forgotten by those lucky enough to have witnessed it.


Now we are treated to Chen Shi-Zheng's exotic blend of East and West, sumptuous for the eye, and with the collaboration of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Laurence Cummings conducts an ENO orchestra with convincing period sound. There is also a good, eminently singable translation from Christopher Cowell.


The opening fanfare, delivered from boxes on either side of the proscenium arch, had me sitting on the very edge of my seat as Music (Elizabeth Watts) took centre stage. Behind a vast projection of the moon, and before her a pool of shadow. She moved slowly forward delivering her aria boldly and impressively. Gradually the oriental dancers of Shi-Zheng's own troupe of Javanese dancers entered, bearing elaborate arrangements of tropical fruit and flowers.


The title character is of course crucial, and John Mark Ainsley is the perfect choice. He uses his voice with intelligence in the big arena and, with customary enthusiasm, absorbs a good deal of oriental style into his movements. Ruby Philogene looks dazzling as Euridice, though her voice seemed under-powered for the Coliseum, but the other roles are strongly cast. Brindley Sherratt a dark toned Charon, Wendy Dawn Thompson as Messenger delivering the news of Euridice's death with clarity and compassion, Stephanie Marshall a warm toned Persephone (who negotiated a complicated walk with aplomb, balanced on the back of the crawling male dancers) and Elizabeth Watts impressed as both Music and Hope.


The “chorus” is a hand picked ensemble – these singers could be labelled “who's hot” amongst the more recent graduates of the British music colleges. All made their mark, but particularly outstanding were Nicholas Watts, William Berger and Stephen Wallace.


Neutral screen backdrops, variously lit, provide a set of artful simplicity and the perfect foil for the colourful costumes. The black reflective flooring doubles as water in Act 3 across which Charon's boat is propelled by barely visible figures whilst a single lantern casts rippling reflections exactly matching the watery music of the harp – a real piece of theatrical magic.


Pluto's kingdom is an underwater world with the monarchs reclining in orange organza seashell thrones, encased in plaster-like make up (think living statue buskers).


True, this production has moved a long way from the setting of classical mythology, but there is a great deal to admire and more than a touch of magic.


© Serena Fenwick

Seen at a later performance from the dress circle (row G, under the 'shelf' - in the supposedly more prestigious middle-front rows words can get very confused) I was impressed by the clarity of diction. That however did not make redundant, or at all unwelcome, the surtitles carrying Christopher Cowell's serviceable English translation (we tend to leave subtitles switched on watching DVDs of English operas!).

Looking down, the watery presentation of the journey across the Styx was particularly effective. These things are nowadays more readily (not necessarily more easily) achieved on film - the WNO/Operavox DVD has been giving us pleasure and food for thought - but this was a particularly evocative image in a production which was always decorative.


We saw ENO's Orfeo at the end of a busy day - a long afternoon at Wigmore Hall for the semi-finals of the Kathleen Ferrier Competition, towards the end of which Elizabeth Watts secured her place in the Finals before going on to bring lustre to two of the solo roles, Music and Hope, and take her place in the 'chorus' ensemble of eighteen singers. PGW

[Two days later, Elizabeth Watts duly - and very deservedly - won the competition, wearing her stage costume at Wigmore Hall before going off again to ENO!]

- - a performance of festival quality, so entrancing that analysis can only belittle its impact. Chen Shi-Zheng weaves a tapestry of oriental aesthetics and western song with such understated skill, simplicity and seamlessness that you feel you are part of a mirage. It is enough just to admire the pure, luminous colours of Tom Pye's set, the fragile blossom of Elizabeth Caitlin Ward's costumes, the grace and delicacy of Chen's Javanese dancers and the worldly pleasure given by ENO's excellent cast. What miraculous insights Chen has conjured from the east, using the unreality of theatre to make an aesthetic statement on life and death. (Financial Times, April 19)

Photos: Catherine Ashmore: John Mark Ainsley (Orfeo), Jeremy White (Pluto), Stephanie Marshall (Proserpina), Elizabeth Watts