It is not every day that an audience member enters the world’s oldest surviving music hall and is confronted with staging adorned with aggressive graffiti. This juxtaposition of antiquated sensibility and contemporary counter culture permeates Director, Gerard Jones’ original production of Oreste. Handel’s 1734 opera which retells Ancient Greek tragedy Iphigenia in Tauris, is relocated in a dystopian context (Jones cites Samuel Becket’s Endgame as an inspiration). Jones’ production rebrands the murder cult headed by high priestess Iphigenia as a sadistic criminal gang situated in a discrete, sinister, warehouse, and in doing so enables the audience to greater understand the horror of deaths in Ancient Greek literature, which are so often euphemised/justified as necessary religious sacrifices, yet through contemporary eyes are in fact little more than barbaric murders.
With this in mind, one may assume that Oreste is a distressing, sombre opera, yet in places it is surprisingly humorous and light-hearted. Handel’s music – conducted by James Hendry and performed by the Southbank Sinfonia – is melodic and bright, again providing an intriguing juxtaposition between the atmosphere created and the storyline of the opera. (This is a striking contrast to the Royal Opera’s production of Wagner’s Tannhauser in April, in which the bleak themes were reflected in the stark and grave nature of the music.) In an unexpected twist, the climactic homicide at the end of Act III elicits more laughter than terror, as each character takes it in turns to defile the corpse off stage, emerging covered in faux blood and filled with an almost orgasmic sense of murderous joy. Despite its comicality, this scene is accompanied by a heart wrenching solo by tenor Thomas Atkins who stares soullessly into the audience, seemingly unaffected by the horror of the events that have unfolded. Furthermore, the presentation of characters Oreste, Iphigenia and Ermione all smothered in blood, ominously reminds all Classicists of the curse of the House of Atreus, which haunts the characters’ family with bloodshed and destruction. Iphigenia wipes the blood off Oreste’s arms with a baby garment prop used earlier in the act, and the increasingly bloodied baby grow foreshadows the cruel destiny that is fated for the next generation of the family in a perpetual cycle of doom.
The cast of Oreste is comprised of members of the Royal Opera’s Jette Parker Young Artist’s Programme, and all are exemplary advocates for the initiative. Each of the female performers deliver strong performances, their voices powerfully piercing through the auditorium of Wilton’s Music Hall. Russian soprano Vlada Borovko’s performance of Ermione is particularly impressive, as she delivers complex ornamentation with clarity and precision, whilst simultaneously embodying her prim and proper character. Angela Simkin’s delivery of the role of Oreste is also commendable, as she maintains a mind-addled persona throughout the entire performance. Quirky physical gestures and flitting eyes denote that she is under the possession of the furies.
Oreste is an opera of opposites. Tradition and modernity, fear and frivolity are all encompassed into one production, and interlaced to create a timeless performance that gives new relevance and understanding to an opera based on antiquated literature. The attention to detailed staging combined with musical virtuosity and passion captures the audience’s imagination and takes them on a narrative journey. Whilst watching Oreste, I found myself so involved in the character’s microcosmical world that I forgot to read the translation projected above the stage. But there is little need for English subtitles, as the universal language of music successfully portrays the narrative with no need for linguistic support.
Oreste is running at Wilton’s Music Hall until 19 November 2016. For more information see Royal Opera House website.
Photo: Clive Barda