Review: Orpheus’ Descent into the Underworld

Pippa Smith 22 November 2016

The story of Orpheus has proved understandably attractive to composers: it shows art, specifically music, as a transcendental force. Charpentier’s Orpheus’ Descent Into the Underworld is the least loved opera of the bunch, and the Cambridge University Opera Society make a fair case for it in this production, although they can’t overcome the piece’s weaknesses.

This opera is essentially static in how it develops, and director Helena Moore’s decision to employ a naturalistic acting style doesn’t quite work because there is on the whole very little for the cast to act. There’s a bit too much wandering aimlessly around the stage and repeated vague hand gestures. The direction is most effective where it is most stylised: Pluto’s court arranged in a semicircle at the back of the stage when Orfée (Dominic Edwards) makes his plea, the inhabitants of the Underworld mirroring the audience; or the stark black-and-white makeup worn by the chorus of shades.

The opera has a lot of instrumental music for dance interludes, and the dancing and stage business (or lack thereof) was predictably worse than when the performers were singing. Although this awkwardness is as much the fault of the piece as of the director or cast, this production did little much to overcome these flaws.

The musical performance was on the whole admirable. Under musical director Alice Webster the orchestra played securely and with precise articulation, important for music like this which can so easily become anonymous. But there were persistent problems with intonation and occasional problems with ensemble. The chorus sang very well, producing a lovely and impressively blended sound, difficult with such a small number of singers.

Solo performances were largely well taken. As Orfée, Edwards sang with a light pleasant tone in his lower voice, although in the first act he had a tendency to croon: he improved markedly in the second but his falsetto, which he used often, was less evenly produced and caused problems with his intonation. Sapphire Armitage as Euridice sang well with her sweet-toned and slender voice. As Proserpine, Heather Conder projected fully into the space but struggled a little with the high tessitura. Stephen Matthews as Pluton sang firmly but indistinctly. Although the reason for singing the opera in English (with names left in French) was apparently so the audience could connect more directly with the words, diction was generally poor – although Eleanor Burke as Daphné and Brian Mummert as Apollon were exceptions, Burke in particular bringing more energy and commitment to acting than most of the cast.

Consequently, Orpheus’ Descent Into the Underworld was never less than competent but failed to overcome the piece’s flaws and was too often lacking in energy.