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La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers

by on 4 September 2022

Go to Hell

La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers

by Marc-Antoine Charpentier

The Vache Baroque Festival, Chalfont St. Giles until 4th September   

Review by Mark Aspen

If you are going to hell there can be no more charming route than via Chalfont’s beautiful historic estate at The Vache, the summer home of The Vache Baroque Festival.  The Vache estate’s association with regicides, explorers and soldiers imbues it with a sense of adventure … and what could be more adventurous than descending into Hades.   

The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as recounted by Ovid in the Metamorphoses has fired the imagination of artists, poets and composers.  The vividly emotional story of the bard Orpheus braving the fires of hell to rescue his bride Eurydice cries out to be an opera.  Countless composers has rallied to this call (Grove counts over eighty well-known composers who have written operas to the Orpheus theme).   Some of the first operatic treatments of the theme included Monteverdi’s in the early 1600’s, some eighty years before Charpentier, while Birtwistle’s second crack at it, The Corridor, premièred just over decade ago.  In 2019 The English National Opera gave over its autumn season to Orphic operas (by Christoph Gluck, Jacques Offenbach, Harrison Birtwistle and Philip Glass and range 1762 to 1993).

This critic’s eagerly awaited return to The Vache Baroque Festival (VBF) suffered from a delayed journey from London as the (already busily crowded) Amersham road was flash-flooded by a heavy downpour.  It had thoroughly soaked the opera finery of the early-arriving audience, but had clearly not dampened its anticipatory enthusiasm.  It certainly had not quenched the fires of Hell in La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers, Charpentier’s jewel of a baroque chamber opera.

The ethos of VBF is to encourage development in performers in early and mid-career, in conjunction with established performers, working in the smaller scale that possible with baroque opera.  The result is a young, vibrant and enthusiastic company, whose vivacity and energy boils over into the vivacious and energetic nature of baroque opera.

The Prelude, a three minute Overture, sets the mood, stately yet lively in equal measure, which is the essence of the baroque.  The ten-piece chamber group, conducted from the harpsicord by Music Director, Jonathan Darbourne, keeps a smart and spirited pace, speaking out the action with clarity and character.

We open in a light-hearted vein with the wedding of Orpheus and Eurydice, accompanied by all their friends, who happily suggest “Inventons mille jeux divers” (let’s make up a thousand different games) for the party.  And what a stylish party it is, pretty and pale pastel.  Laura Jane Stanfield’s superlative designs underline the characters’ disposition and the atmosphere of the plot as time progresses.  For the first act all is light and carefree.   The costumes hint slightly towards the 1970s in style.  The set is dressed in white chiffon drapes and the musicians are on stage as the wedding reception band, each in turquoise waistcoats and bowties.  The music stand front-cloths are monogrammed M.A.C.  But, yes, the music remains Charpentier’s and the instruments period.

A wedding reception, so there is dancing, leading the cast are the BirdGang Dancers, a nimble duo of Fi Silverthorn and Kenji Matsunaga.  The dance is sinuous, with hints of the oriental, contemporary and it is skilfully choreographed on an alarmingly small stage by Simeon Qsyea.

The chaps wriggle out of the dancing and go to play croquet on the pitch alongside the stage.  (It was almost pleasing to see a croquet lawn even more bumpy than the small one we have at home, and, as in all informal croquet games, everyone seems to be playing to their own rules.)   Meanwhile Euridice spends some quality time with her “compagnes fidèles” Daphné, Enone and Arethuze.  Japanese soprano Naho Koizumi, lends a delightful delicacy to the role of Daphné, while Katie-Louise Dobson’s Enone has a more decorated soprano voice.  Mezzo-soprano Lila Chrisp, a versatile attractive performer as we later see, is an attractive Arethuze (a part originally scored for alto voice). 

Although Enone and Aréthuze sing a joyous duet in honour of the wedding day, there are hints of foreboding, the vision of seeing a hundred young flowers die.  When, Euridice kicks off hers shoes to dance in the grass, literally at The Vache, we hear a sharp cry, “Ah! ” Enone thinks she has stood on a thorn and laughs it off, there being no pleasure without pain, as she says.  It is no laughing matter though, and Euridice gasps out, “Soutiens-moi, chère Enone, un serpent m’ a blessée” (Hold me up, dear Enone, a snake has wounded me”.)  Australian soprano Lauren Lodge-Campbell savours Charpentier’s descending bass lament in Soutiens-moi.   Lodge-Campbell is an engaging Euridice, and her voice has a lightness and purity.  It is a shame that we only see Euridice at the beginning and end of the opera.

Samuel Boden plays Orphée.  His craggy looks are softened by a Tin-Tin quiff, which gives him an air of boyish innocence, but my how he can act.  His anguish at the death of Euridice is palpable; his disconsolation is abject as her body is carried off … followed by Pluton, who is unseen by the cast.  Musically, the role of Orphée is demanding.  Orphée has to go down into hell and charm all its inhabitants with his singing.  It’s a big ask for Orphée and for the performer who sings the part.  Moreover, Charpentier calls for an haut-contre voice, that register peculiar to the French baroque that sits between that of the tenor and the countertenor.  Boden rises magnificently to this challenge, taking his tenor high without the slightest hint of strain yet with great strength, a timbre that has an enthralling and stirring effect.

Orphée is consoled to some extent however, by his father Apollon who suggests that he use his considerable musical prowess to go to Hades to charm Pluton into releasing Euridice.  Jamie Woollard (recently seen in Hackney Empire’s Götterdämmerung) is Apollon, his warm bass fitting for Apollon’s optimism and faith in his mortal son.  Although not entirely convinced, Orphée has snapped out of being the lâche amant, the cowardly lover who should kill himself to be with his beloved Euridice, to thinking he should give it a go to fetch her back.

The end of Act One has drapes closed on the stage and the pastoral ambience dissolves.

A single viol at the foot of the stage eases us into Act Two, which has a more sombre vibe.  This prelude brings Orphée to the gates of Hades.   Cast and musicians now wear black and white, the front-cloths are turned on the music stands, and colour has gone.  Night has fallen during the interval between Acts and now lighting designer Andrew Ellis can come into his own with a lighting plot that brings The Vache manor-house into the design, bathed in purple light. 

Les Coupables, The Guilty Ones, a chorus of Furies and the trio of Shades, the tormented spirits Ixion, Titye and Tantale bemoan their affreux tourments, (hideous tortures) a sombre minor key dirge.  Here director Jeanne Pansard-Besson has one of several inspired twists.  Hell’s inhabitants are Pierrot marionettes.  However, it is not Pluton, the King of Hades who pulls the strings.  It is Orphée’s singing.  Que tes chants ont d’appas!  (What charms your songs have!) they declare as their strings tighten.  It is a symbolic tugging of their heartstrings. 

There may, incidentally be a key to this idea.  Charpentier annotated his score with the names of the musicians, here Pierre Pièche, a celebrated flautist, whose nickname was Pierrot, little Peter.

Ixion had murdered his father-in-law over a quarrel about dowries, was pardoned by Zeus, but then tried to seduce Hera, Zeus’s wife.  He was punished by being tied to a wheel of fire to be endlessly rolled across Hades.  Our Ixion’s wheel is rather ornate oversized ruff.  (From my time in the distant past as a schoolboy chorister, I know that any ruff can be a torment!)  Ixion is another haut-contre role, which is consummately filled by countertenor Alexander Chance.  Chance sings with clarity and precision.  He is the son of Michael Chance, the founder and Artistic Director of The Grange Festival and one of the foremost countertenors, so clearly the talent runs in the blood.  

Titye had also offended Zeus had also defiled another of Zeus’ wives, Leto and had been condemned to be tortured by a pair of vultures who fed on his liver every day, but which grew back every night, uncomfortable for certain.  Jamie Woollard doubles in this role and it is fulfilling to hear his rich bass fleshing out (if that is the appropriate turn of phrase for poor Titye) the dramatic turn of the score.

Tantale’s torment was to be shackled in a pool of clear sparkling water but whenever he bent down to try to take a drink the water would rapidly recede.  His offence was twofold, he had stolen ambrosia, the food of the gods, plus he had cannibalised his own son to feed to the gods.  Lars Fischer brings a nicely rounded tenor resonance to the role of the hapless Tantale, sitting disconsolately in a corner downstage, whilst a Fury pours a stream of dry sand past his cup.  

Orphée’s alluring singing, soft and sonorous, accompanied by the viols has won over most of the Underworld’s beleaguered inhabitants, but then comes the imperious entrance of Pluton.

The versatile and experienced (recently Dick Deadeye in English National Opera’s H.M.S. Pinafore) bass-baritone Henry Waddington is a very impressive Pluton.  (His General Gobrias in The Grange Festival’s powerful Belshazzar is a better comparison.)  Pluton is outraged, demanding “Que cherche en mon palais” (Who comes looking around my palace?).  Stiffly implacable, he refuses to be moved by Orphée’s plight … at first. Waddington’s rich vocalisation makes for an imperious presence.

However, Pluton’s queen Proserpine has also appeared.  Proserpine is also in Hades prematurely, having been abducted by Pluton (who incidentally is her uncle).  When Orphée works his musical magic Proserpine is soon beguiled; so much so that she pleads on his behalf.  Boden excels in this scene with his sensitive singing that is touchingly intense in expressing his character’s grief for his bride, ma doleur extrême.  Doubling as Proserpine, Lila Chrisp completely inhabits the soprano role imbuing it with regal presence and controlled dignity, strikingly acted and beautifully sung.   In her Pauvre amant (Pitiful Lover), Properine pleads “what heart could not be moved by such a tender ‘plaint”. 

Eventually Pluton’s bluster subsides, overcome by the seductive lyricism of Orphée’s song until finally Pluton relents.  Waddington makes this transition in the disposition of Pluton seamlessly.

When Euridice reappears, she wears the wedding dress, but tainted with the fires of Hades.  Orphée’s instruction from Pluton, the condition of her release, is that she follows him from Hades, but he must not look back, until he returns to the realm of the living.   

In the chorus’ final joyful expression that the couple are happily reunited, which Charpentier describes as a light sarabande, the assumption is that he implies that Orphée overcomes the desire to look back to check.  Nevertheless, there are the prescient words “Que le tendre Orphée à lui-même est à craindre” (that the tender Orphée has only himself to fear).

VBF has Euridice remain on the stage as the opera closes.  Death comes to us all in the end, including the mortal Euridice, so Pluton knows she will return in due course.

Most musicologists believe that Charpentier intended to write a third Act which would follow Ovid’s tragic ending to the story, but maybe he meant to leave us there to make up our own minds. 

Perhaps love conquers all … but only if it is patient.

Mark Aspen, September 2022

Photography by The Photography Shed

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