Orpheus; Apartment House review: rich, rewarding, different

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Take a hallowed operatic masterpiece and mix it, mash it, melt it, or better, combine it with Indian ragas and talas, songs and dances. Choose a cast of classically trained musicians from the Western tradition and ask them to share Claudio Monteverdi’s 1607 work, Orpheus, featuring British-born artists immersed in a broad Indian classical heritage. Any attempt to guess how Opera North’s collaboration with its neighboring Leeds-based South Asian Arts might work was bound to be out of place. The results, which flow seamlessly between Italian and Urdu, Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, Punjabi and Bengali, as well as musical styles, were richer and more rewarding than even the most optimistic prophecy.

Presented as a “reimagination”, the disturbing story remains the same: Orpheus the musician tries to recover his dead wife, Eurydice, from the underworld, but looks back and in so doing loses her forever. The staging, by Anna Himali Howard, fixes the action in the lovingly manicured back garden of a terraced house of the type found in any UK town. The event is the wedding party of Orpheus and Eurydice; the musicians – violin or theorbo, tabla or esraj – are among the guests. The designs by Leslie Travers and the team create a clever blend of the real and the surreal (the manufacturers of carpets, balloons, fabrics, backdrops and head gardener are among the many accredited). The lights illuminate the garden. The costumes show the bright, jeweled 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 asked is the biggest a human being has to ask: how to deal with pain.

Imagine a muted and whispered Baroque dance suite a few galaxies away

The musical styles were discreet and equal. In the lead role, Nicholas Watts interpreted and graced Monteverdi’s vocal line with the smooth tones of an experienced opera singer. Being able to project over 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 played by the young British Tamil interpreter Ashnaa Sasikaran, great on her social networks for her carnatic singing. The music for her role was composed by the show’s musical co-director, Jasdeep Singh Degun, in the North Indian Hindustani style. Sasikaran’s shimmering melisms couldn’t be more different from the clean and pure sounds of Watts’ Monteverdi, but for both ornaments they are a key to expression. The contrasting sound worlds combined and separated, not only for the protagonists but also for the choir and instrumentalists, like a meeting of waters.

‘A meeting of 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. © Tristram Kenton Photography: Tristram Kenton / The Guardian

Both Degun and the Baroque authority Laurence Cummings are called music director. They work in sympathy: Cummings conducts from the harpsichord, Degun from the sitar. Honoring the Indian tradition of singing and playing, Cummings leaves the keyboard and sings the part of Shepherd. Kaviraj Singh, who plays the santoor (a hammered dulcimer), has left his place in the orchestral ensemble to sing, with a fierce expression, the role of Charon. Similarly Kirpal Singh Panesar, master of the bowed tar shehnai, offered the culminating finale of the evening in the singing role of Apollo / Guru, addressing words of comfort to the grieving Orpheus: “You will see yourselves in the sun and in the stars”. The impatient may find this generous collaboration too long. I would have liked to hear it again.

Related: The best of both worlds: Opera North’s Orpheus reinvented

The journey from the microtonal patterns characteristic of Indian ragas to the group’s experiments Apartment it is shorter than you might think. This shape-shifting ensemble, a familiar presence in art galleries and alternative spaces such as Cafe Oto in East London since 1995, is now an uncompromising fixture at Wigmore Hall. Nine musicians performed a program called Harmonic Fields. The blurring of fixed pitches – best expressed as what we think, in Western music, as “in tune” – has been explored in two world premieres, Harmonic islands by the Lithuanian composer Juta Pranulyté (b.1993), e Natural nature by Irishman Scott McLaughlin (born 1975).

The essential grouping in four ensembles was strings with clarinet. Slow swirling harmonies and vibrations, never fixed, always changing, required careful listening. By chance or by design, the composer Oliver Leith, winning the accolade earlier this month for his opera Last days, and the director of that opera, Jack Sheen (born 1993), was also present. Sheen’s cello solo (and fixed audio) was the highlight, a broad and spooky opera performed by Apartment House’s tireless artistic director Anton Lukoszevieze. Imagine a baroque dance suite – with the familiar arpeggios figurations, quick finger movements and string crossings – played muted and whispered a few galaxies away, and you get the idea.

A quick cheer for the appointment of Jakub Hrsisa, announced last week as incoming musical director at the Royal Opera House, succeeding Antonio Pappano from September 2025. The 41-year-old Czech conductor was universally welcomed, praised for his collegiate approach. Besides being a stimulating choice, it also means that, with Tomáš Hanus at the Welsh National Opera, the UK now has two world exponents of Czech music. And it’s something to shout about.

Star ratings (out of five)

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