The week in classic: Orpheus; Apartment House Review – Rich, Rewarding, Different | Classical music


JTake a masterpiece of sacred opera and mix, mash, merge or, better, unite it with Indian ragas and tala, songs and dances. Choose a cast of classically trained musicians from the Western tradition and have them perform Claudio Monteverdi’s 1607 opera, Orpheus, featuring British-born artists steeped in an extensive classical Indian heritage. Any attempt to guess how Opera North’s collaboration with its Leeds-based neighbour, South Asian Artsmight work was meant to be way off the mark. The resultsflowing seamlessly between Italian and Urdu, Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, Punjabi and Bengali, as well as between musical styles, were richer and more rewarding than even the most optimistic prophecy .

Billed as a “reinvention”, the haunting story remains the same: Orpheus the musician attempts to retrieve his dead wife, Eurydice, from the underworld, but looks back and in the process loses her forever. The direction, by Anna Himali Howard, sets the action in the lovingly tended back garden of an end-of-terrace house of the kind found in any British town. The event is the wedding of Orpheus and Eurydice; the musicians – whether they play the violin or theorbo, the tabla or the esraj – are among the guests. The creations of Leslie Travers and her team achieve a clever union of the real and the surreal (the carpet, balloon, textile, backdrop makers, as well as the head gardener, are among many credited). Garlands illuminate the garden. Costumes display the bright, bejeweled colors of the celebration. The language of Greek myth and Baroque opera has become the vernacular of modern family life in 21st century Britain. The question posed is the biggest that a human being can ask: how to deal with grief.

The musical styles were understated and equal. In the title role, Nicholas Watts spun and embellished Monteverdi’s vocal line with the sharp tones of an experienced opera singer. Being able to project above an orchestra and into an auditorium is part of his artistic arsenal. The Indian approach, meditative, intimate, is the opposite, made for close encounters. The role of Eurydice was taken over by the young British Tamil performer Ashna Sasikaran, big on social media for her Carnatic singing. The music for her role was composed by the show’s co-musical director, Jasdeep Singh Degun, in the Hindustani style of North India. Sasikaran’s shimmering melismas couldn’t be more different from the clear, pure sounds of Watts’ Monteverdi, but for both, ornamentation is the key to expression. The contrasting sound worlds combined and separated, not only for the main characters but also for the choir and the instrumentalists, like a meeting of the waters.

‘A meeting of the waters’: Shahbaz Hussain on tabla, RN Prakash on ghatam, Mark Wagstaff on percussion, Sergio Bucheli on theorbo, Jasdeep Singh Degun on sitar and Andrew Long on violin. © Tristam Kenton

Degun and Baroque Authority Laurence Cummings are called musical director. They work in sympathy: Cummings leads the harpsichord, Degun the sitar. Honoring the Indian tradition of singing and playing, Cummings leaves his keyboard and sings the role of Shepherd. Kaviraj Singh, who plays the santoor (hammered dulcimer), left his place within the orchestral ensemble to sing, with fierce expression, the role of Caronte. In the same way Kirpal Singh Panesar, master of the bowed tar shehnai, offered the highlight of the evening in the sung role of Apollo/Guru, addressing words of comfort to Orpheus in mourning: “You will see yourselves in the sun and the stars. The impatient may find this generous collaboration too long. I would have liked to hear it all again.

The journey from the microtonal patterns characteristic of Indian ragas to the experiments of the group Building is shorter than you think. This shape-shifting ensemble, since 1995 a familiar presence in art galleries and alternative spaces such as Cafe Oto in east London, is now a welcome and uncompromising feature of Wigmore Hall. Nine musicians performed a program called Harmonic Fields. The blurring of fixed pitches – best expressed as what we, in Western music, think of as “tuned” – has been explored in two world premieres, Harmonic Islands by the Lithuanian composer Juta Pranulyte (born in 1993), and Natura Naturans of Irish descent Scott McLaughlin (born in 1975).

The essential grouping in four ensemble works was strings with clarinet. Slowly swirling harmonies and vibrations, never fixed, ever changing, demanded careful listening. By chance or by design, the composer Olivier Leithawarded earlier this month for his opera Last daysand the conductor of this work, Jack Sheen (born 1993), also featured. Sheen’s cello (and fixed audio) solo was the highlight, an expansive, ghostly work performed by Apartment House’s tireless artistic director, Anton Lukoszevieze. Imagine a baroque dance suite – with the familiar figurations of arpeggios, rapid finger work and crossing strings – played muted and whispered a few galaxies away, and you get the idea.

Jakub Hrůša, Jakob Hrusa, press publicity photo
Jakub Hrůša.

A short tour for the nomination of Jakub Hrůsa, announced last week as incoming music director at the Royal Opera House, succeeding Antonio Pappano from September 2025. The 41-year-old Czech conductor has been universally welcomed, his collegial approach hailed. As well as being an exciting choice, it also means that, with Tomáš Hanus at the Welsh National Opera, the UK now has two global representatives of Czech music. And that’s something to shout about.

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