Review: Orpheus at the Royal Opera House

Let’s play a game. If I were to say umbrella you might say rain. If I were to say red you might say blue (or Corbyn – depending on how playful you are feeling). If I were to say Orpheus no doubt you would say tragedy or plucky harp thing. After seeing Little Bulb’s touring production at the Royal Opera House you would be forgiven for saying hot jazz, slapstick comedy, and questionable facial hair. I promise this will all make sense.

The premise of this absurd and off-the-wall Orpheus is an unusual and highly imaginative one. The orphic figure of Django Reinhardt (played by Dominic Conway) is persuaded by Piafesque Yvette Pepin (played by Eugenie Pastor -pencil thin eyebrows and all) to partake in a cabaret/ opera about the myth of Orpheus. The result is that for two hours there is a canonical range of stunning live music and crackly vintage recordings from Debussy to Django Reinhardt, from Saint-Saens to Edith Piaf. The ensemble of eight tirelessly bound around the stage, performing different instruments, changing the sets and engaging in some surprisingly effective puppeteering.

Orpheus-press-3-credit photo by RULER

[Photo courtesy of RULER]

The second half starts with a slightly drawn out musical interlude where you are unnecessarily reminded how talented, and able to multi task, the whole ensemble are. It is, however, in the final scenes where the eclectic mixture of jazz and more traditional melodies come into their own. The performance of Faure’s Cantique de Jean Racine is one of the most poignant and virtuosic moments in the whole performance.

Orpheus-press-1-credit photo by RULER

[Photo courtesy of RULER]

Look out for the entertaining bonne bouche when drummer Tom Penn took on the mantle (quite literally – think of a disgruntled school nativity shepherd and you won’t be far off) of Persephone and performed an original composition featuring the harp and his formidable vocal range.

Conway’s elusive Reinhardt does not say a word throughout, but his exaggerated silent-film-miming and gesticulating never grates or seems insincere. His light-fingered ability on the guitar is stunning as is Clare Beresford’s unbound enthusiasm on the double bass.

Orpheus-press-6-to accompany interviews-credit James Allan

[Photo courtesy of James Allan]

So move over Harper Beckham or Zayn Malik from One Direction. This year has been the year of Orpheus. Earlier this year Monteverdi’s version was performed at the Roundhouse, Birtwistle’s at the Linbury Studio and Luigi Rossi’s is due to take centre stage at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

According to myth, Orpheus tamed nature, pacified the gods and moved the most stalwart of hearts through his music –possibly the first instance of something remotely close to opera as we understand it. This latest offering (after a sell-out run at Battersea Arts Centre) will delight, confuse and inspire. Even Corbyn will be foot-tapping by the end!

‘Orpheus’ will be playing at the Royal Opera House 15th-19th September, Bristol Old Vic 23rd-26th September, Nuffield Southampton 29th September-3rd October, Liverpool Everyman 20th-24th October and the Birmingham Repertory Theatre 28th-31st October.

Tickets are available from Littlebulb Theatre’s website.

Helena Gumley-Mason