Review: Orfeo – Monteverdi (CTO 2016)

Orfeo – Claudio Monteverdi

Cape Town Opera
Camerata Tinta Barocca

CTO’s Orfeo. Zwakele Tshabalala, Johannes Slabbert, Annemerie Steenkamp, LeOui Rendsburg.
Conductor: Erik Dippenaar
Director, Set Designer: Jaco Bouwer
Costume Design: Bridget Ann Baker
Lighting Design: Wolf Britz
Choreography: Ina Wichterich
Associate Director: Magdelene Minnaar

Can a 400 year old opera, one of the earliest examples of this art form, be brought back to life in the 21st century? Sure, it’s being done all the time. But can it be made new, while still retaining its essence? Cape Town Opera’s final production of their 2016 season achieved just that. Based on the tale of Orpheus, who descends into the Underworld to recover his beloved Eurydice, this ancient Greek myth is ripe for modern reinterpretation.

Jaco Bouwer, director and set designer.

The creative team assembled by director and set designer, Jaco Bouwer, created a visually arresting spectacle in vivid colours, with plenty of pop culture references to boot. The first scene is set in an artists’ co-working studio. There is a sense of creative types creating the story as it progresses. Movable scenic elements are brought on and off stage by both singers and stage hands, and a painted backdrop is hung while other action is taking place. In one of the most striking scenes, the lighting gantries are all lowered, and Apollo (Makudupanyane Senoana) is pushed onstage on a mobile ladder, from where he invites his despairing son Orfeo to join him in Heaven.

Wolf Britz’s lighting design is almost a character in itself. It was most electrifying in the Underworld scenes, where the stage was virtually empty: on the banks of the river Styx, a garish sign in pink neon letters proclaims “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”; on the other side, the Underworld is enveloped in a smoky orange gloom from a large setting sun.

Bridget Baker designed beautiful contemporary costumes to clothe a cast of hipsters, artists and musicians. Euridice’s dress is the epitome of chastity. Messenger’s costume sports the Facebook Messenger logo, thereby juxtaposing the anachronism of hand delivered messages with the instant communication of the digital age.

Assisted by multi-talented soprano Magdalene Minnaar as associate director, the singers were given room to explore their characters in workshop-style rehearsals. For the most part, this resulted in great performances. Some of the more choreographed moves didn’t come across well, though. I was perplexed by the characters’ signature moves. Euridice’s (LeOui Rensburg) balletic movements were graceful, but I didn’t quite know what to make of Messenger’s (Annemarie Steenkamp) OCD/Parkinson’s/Tourette’s fidgeting, nor Speranza’s (Ané Pretorius) askew air guitar. All these moves combined made for a rather awkard dance scene. Ina Wichterich’s more formal set-piece dancing was better executed.

Erik Dippenaar, music director of Camerata Tinta Barocca.

Erik Dippenaar, leading the Camerata Tinta Barocca from the harpsichord, was tasked with interpreting Monteverdi’s score. Some educated guesswork was needed, since no definitive account of the original instrumentation exists. This provided some creative freedom to employ instrumental combinations to match the mood of each scene. As was the custom of the time, the orchestra was seated at audience level in front of the stage, rather than in the orchestra pit. This way they became very much a part of the visual experience. Monteverdi’s score is full of delightful melodies that borrow stylistically from much of his other work. Since he was in effect creating a new art form, he was unencumbered by operatic conventions later composers would face. The historically informed use of period instruments paradoxically made the music feel fresh and new.

Johannes Slabbert, Orfeo.

The young cast, consisting of CTO singers and students at UCT Opera School, delivered singing of a generally high standard. The frequent ensembles, in which soloists doubled as chorus, reminded of Monteverdi’s madrigals. Johannes Slabbert’s portrayal of the title role was a tour-de-force, although his intonation was often flat. This was surprising, since I remember no such problem in his previous appearance in last month’s Carmen.

By looking back, Orpheus may have failed to bring his beloved back to life, but Cape Town Opera’s forward-looking Orfeo managed to create a novel and current theatrical experience with a 400 year old soul.

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