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Sunday Lifestyle

The power of passion and music at the Royal Opera House

ART DE VIVRE - The Philippine Star

A trip to London is never quite complete without watching a show at the Royal Opera House. It is, after all, one of the esteemed landmarks of the city’s culture and home to some of the best opera and ballet performances in the world. With an astounding floor area of three acres, the Royal Opera House dominates the landscape of the shopping and tourist district of Covent Garden and is in fact referred to as “Covent Garden” because of its long history dating from 1732 when the first theater was built on the same site.

Two fires and several reconstructions later (the latest one in 1996), the current building is the third theater with an extensive complex of technical, rehearsal, educational and administrative theater facilities. Arguably the most modern theater in Europe, the backstage has automated changing “set wagons” that can accommodate seven full productions at a time. This allows, for example, an opera to be shown in the afternoon for a matinee, a ballet the same evening, and a whole new set of productions the next day and the days after that. Simultaneous rehearsals with the actual sets are also easily arranged. This makes it possible for those with only a few days in London to watch a number of different performances.

It is advisable to book tickets as early as you can online because they go fast. We booked weeks in advance and got the last few remaining seats. Premier seats can be pricey but apparently, like in most opera houses of the world, ticket prices don’t even cover the cost, which runs to about a million pounds per production. The theater’s survival is always dependent on generous grants and donations.

There are many price options, though, and the least expensive seats at the uppermost section are pretty good, actually, as we saw for ourselves during a backstage tour. The theater was designed like a Greek amphitheater in a horseshoe shape with the seating designed to simulate the view from the top of a cliff. The acoustics are fabulous from up there, and if you get the center seats you have one of the best vantage points to enjoy the show. The worst seats are actually the royal box on the side which was positioned right beside the stage so that artists can sing directly to Queen Victoria. The box also provided direct access to the dressing rooms through a stairway, making it easy for Prince Albert and his friends to meet the ballerinas.

Whatever ticket price you settle for, you can be assured of the high quality of the production as we have experienced all these years. Every effort is made to provide new experiences for the audience, starting with the selection of the repertory to the assembly of the right artists and creative talents that will make the production an extraordinary one. The opening gala of the 2015/2016 season, Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice, was no exception. This was the first time they were presenting Gluck’s opera in the revised French version of 1774, a work rarely performed in the opera circuit.

This was also the first time for celebrated choreographer Hofesh Shechter to direct an opera, done in tandem with John Fulljames, the associate director of the Royal Opera. He choreographs his eponymous dance company for the ballet sequences as well. Since Gluck’s French version required an Orphée with an haute-contre, a very high tenor voice (the original Italian version used an alto castrato which became illegal after 1870), Peruvian superstar tenor Juan Diego Floréz was asked to take on the part which was to be his role debut onstage.

The appearance of Floréz was reason enough for many opera fans to line up for tickets but there were many other treats in store: the renowned John Eliot Gardiner, a key figure in early music revival and the master of this repertory, was conducting the English Baroque Soloists, one of the world’s leading period instrument orchestras. For the chorus, it was the Monteverdi Choir, consistently acclaimed as one of the best choirs in the world.

The opera is based on the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus, a legendary musician who mourns the death of his beloved wife Eurydice so deeply that he tries to bring her back to life from the underworld by appeasing the Furies with his song. The god Amour encourages him but warns that he cannot look at her before they make it back to earth, nor can he explain the reason why, otherwise he will lose her again.

In interpreting Gluck’s 18th-century score, the challenge was to keep the opera fresh and relevant, “to rid it of any vestiges of remoteness or venerable respectability and to release the huge emotional charge that lies beyond its classical sobriety,” says Gardiner. When it was originally performed in Paris in 1774, it was a lush production with dazzling special effects that was meant to impress a very exacting audience. To meet the demands of the audience today, Shechter and Fulljames went the opposite way.

“By bringing simplicity to the look and feel of it, we will get the best emotional impact out of the piece. Rather than try to put too much makeup on it, we are trying to reveal it, to let it be,” according to Shechter.

Conor Murphy’s magnificently stark set of copper flooring and ceiling panels sets the tone for this simplicity. The moving panels made the space flexible, from a limitless horizon with a huge cast of dancers and musicians to a more intimate space required by this chamber drama of three soloists. Beams of light from the ceiling gave an otherworldly feeling and added to the dramatic lighting design of Lee Curran. At one time, a single, central shaft of light would illuminate Floréz like a blessing from the gods during his darkest moments of despair. At other times, there would be a multitude of beams creating a celestial realm.

The stage design also made clear that music was going to be the star of the show by moving the orchestra out of the traditional pit and positioning them right in the middle of the stage where a hydraulic platform would raise them above on columns and plunge them below as Orpheus travels from earth to the underworld then to the heavenly Elysian fields and back to earth again. “The orchestra is the heart of it — you can feel it pulsating, driving the opera. It’s exciting to be able to see the motor of the emotions working on stage,” says Shechter.

With this setup, there was a dynamic interaction among the musicians, the chorus, soloists and dancers. It’s kind of a community feeling which became even more pronounced with the conversion of the original orchestra pit into a standing room area for students to watch the opera up close the way they would watch rock concerts or dance at raves right in front of the DJ. “We want to get a sense of the whole house being as one with the people on stage. We’re all looking at a ritual — just as a performance in the Royal Opera House is a ritual — we are all one community glued together through culture and through ritual,” explains Schechter.

True enough, the cremation ceremony of Eurydice has both performers and audience participating in the ritual, giving it more realism and potency that no doubt made Flórez’s arias of grief even more moving. Not that he needed any help with his performance which was outstanding, bringing the house down with L’espoir Renait dans Mon ame as he hopes to recover Eurydice in Act 1 and with J’ai Perdu mon Eurydice in Act 3 when he loses Eurydice again. He hit the demanding top-notes and managed the coloratura effortlessly while displaying fragility and anguish. The British soprano Lucy Crowe’s Eurydice was a good match for the duets with Floréz. Her sweet, rounded tone was balanced and expressive — from her sensual lassitude in Elysium to her insecurity and anger at Orpheus’ refusal to even look at her after the rescue. Amanda Forsythe as the god Amour provided contrast with a crisper soprano, not to mention a disco gold lamé suit versus Crowe’s Elysian blue chiffon sheath.

Gardiner and the English Baroque Soloists played impeccably, delivering a purity of sound with the extra bite and urgency that can only be achieved with period instruments. In tandem with the glorious voices of the Monteverdi Choir who had a beautifully nuanced rendition, the score of Gluck was simply overwhelming. It was no wonder that Schechter and his dancers were so inspired: What a luxury to be moving with excellent musicians and singers in your midst. As epic as the music was, however, Schechter did not want to go over the top with the choreography.

“With Hofesh’s style we always try to bring it down to a more natural, more organic way of moving. I think it brings more of a human feeling,” says dancer and rehearsal assistant Frédéric Despierre. There were primal flailing and convulsive movements that would progress to more rigid gestures reminiscent of classical Baroque court dances. They also leave room for free interpretation, according to dancer Anna Moller. “I don’t think we show what the chorus and soloists sing. We try to maybe show a different side of what is being said.”

It is this introspection and spirit of creativity that permeates the whole production and illustrates how the myth of Orpheus is about the myth of opera itself, celebrating the power of passion and the power of art in being able to beat all the odds and even vanquish death itself.

 

 

“The myth also examines the artist,” according to Royal Opera House’s Antonio Pappano, music director, and Kasper Holten, director of opera, “reminding us that art should not be placed in the periphery of society but at the core of it: storytelling — and indeed singing and music-making — are essential for our ability to change ourselves and the world.”

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For the Royal Opera House calendar of performances and ticket sales, Backstage Tours, Velvet Gilt and Glamour Tours of the Auditorium, and Thurrock Production Workshop Tours, log on to www.roh.org.uk or call. +44(0)207.304.4000

 

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