Review: Orfeo ed Euridice

First printed in the Guardian on 20 February, 2015

Gluck called his 1762 setting of the Orpheus legend an ‘azione teatrale’, a kind of pocket-sized musical play in which vivid drama was paramount. It was also the first of his ‘reform operas’, a new stylistic thrust that aimed to strip away the frills of the baroque era and hone in on real emotion. There are elements to enjoy in Scottish Opera’s new production, whose modernist chic nods to the 20th century’s reclamation of clean lines after romanticism. But there’s an irony in its best parts being its frills. Costumes are eyecatching, set and lighting are clever, crowd scenes are stylishly done. But musically, things are ropey. In an opera fixated on the transcendental force of beautiful music, whose hero can supposedly tame wild beasts and lost souls with his singing, something is important is missing.

This is one of the last productions that designer Johan Engels created before his sudden death in November, and it looks good. Its fulcrum is a huge perspex cube that rotates to transport Orfeo to and from the underworld and becomes a pop-up bar for slick cocktail parties. Amor is done up as Grace Kelly, gorgeous in pink Dior. The Furies, head to toe in red PVC, look a bit like shelled ants.

Director Ashley Page is a choreographer first and foremost and knows what to do with bodies on a stage. Eight dancers add pathos and lyricism to various scenes; the cast and chorus end up communicating better with their body language than with their singing. As Orfeo, mezzo Caitlin Hulcup doesn’t have the intensity of expression to credibly win over the gods. Lucy Hall’s Euridice is more ardent and open; Ana Quintans’s flirtatious Amor steals every scene she’s in. Kenneth Montgomery draws plodding bass lines and shapeless melodies from the orchestra, and the chorus sounds limp. Musically, nothing much dances.