The generously sized garden, between two ordinary semi-detached houses, is festooned with garlands of flowers. As a single trumpeter starts up the timeless fanfare that opens Monteverdi’s Orfeo, he is joined by an array of musicians sitting around the edge. The usual strings, percussion and continuo instruments are there, but we also hear less familiar instruments: sitar, tabla, santoor. For we are here not just for the wedding of Orpheus and Eurydice, but for the marriage of Eastern and Western classical music.

The Orpheus company
© Tristram Kenton

This Orpheus is the creation of Opera North and their partners South Asian Arts. Not content with melding Monteverdi with a single Indian genre, they have brought together musicians from all corners of the subcontinent and translated portions of the text into many languages. Hindi from the north is juxtaposed with Tamil from the south. The tabla of Shahbaz Hussain, from Lahore, blends with percussion instruments from the south (ghatam, kanjira,  mridangam) from Bangalore’s RN Prakash (as well as western drums and tambourine). The hammered strings of the santoor share continuo work with the harpsichord of Laurence Cummings.

Orpheus follows the storyline and text of the original opera without notable deviation. Thematically, making the story work across cultures is straightforward enough. Despair at the loss of a loved one, redemption at the hands of an all-forgiving father figure,  the immensity of the power of music: these are themes that cross all cultures. The crux of this work is the interweaving of ancient western music with contemporary performance of Indian classical music – much of it newly composed by co-music director and sitar virtuoso Jasdeep Singh Degun.

Chiranjeeb Chakraborty, Vijay Rajput, Céline Saout on swarmandal, Nicholas Watts as Orpheus
© Tristram Kenton

The musical tapestry is woven in many ways. The introductory role of the goddess of music is split into two. As Amy Freston sings the Monteverdi part, “Io la Musica son” becomes “Noi la Musica siam”. Her Indian counterpart, Sangeet, is sung by the soaring voice of Deepa Nair Rasiya (the word “Sangeet” means a Northern Indian wedding music ceremony). The two execute beautiful Indian arm movements in a choreography whereby each defers to the other with perfect symmetry. The pre-wedding meeting of Orpheus and Eurydice is a call and response. The besuited Nicholas Watts’ Italian “Rosa del ciel” is met with a heart-melting Indian improvisation by Ashnaa Sasikaran, resplendent in red and gold wedding outfit. The high octane thrills of Indian percussion merge into the pastoral dance rhythms as if they had been made for each other. Ornamentation on Jasdeep Singh Degun’s sitar or on the bowed esraj of Kirpal Singh Panesar adds depth and colour to the recitatives. In some of the biggest set piece numbers, most notably the finale, everyone plays and sings together. Light relief is provided by the odd bit of competition: Nicholas Watts is invited to try to echo the singing of his new in-laws; initially, he makes a perfectly good fist of imitating the sinuously shaped vocal lines, and then Vijay Rajput goes virtuoso on him, producing a phrase of immense rhythmic and melodic complexity whose last note seems to go on forever. Wisely, Watts gives up the attempt to follow.

Dean Robinson (Pluto), Chandra Chakraborty (Proserpina)
© Tristram Kenton

The smaller roles are tellingly performed. I could name check all of them, but I’ll just point at the three who are also instrumentalists: Kaviraj Singh steps down from his santoor to be an imposing Caronte, Kirpal Singh Panesar is a fatherly Apollo (or guru) when not playing his esraj; Cummings takes his turn in a pleasant duet.

Leslie Travers’ brightly coloured costumes are lovely to look at, with Jackie Shemesh’s lighting exceptionally good at portraying time as afternoon sunshine fades to evening warmth and then nightfall. However, don’t come to Orpheus expecting any great theatrics: director Anna Himali Howard gets a few nice moments of movement around stage, but for the most part, it’s fairly static; acting and choreography are both limited. One cavil, therefore: with the emphasis firmly on the exploration of music, the drama flows slowly, with the wedding divertissements in particular outstaying their welcome.

Nicholas Watts (Orpheus), Sanchita Pal (Nymph)
© Tristram Kenton

For fusion (or crossover, or whatever name you prefer to give it) to be considered a true success, it has to meet two tests. Firstly, the music on each side has to be of the highest quality, so that devotees of each genre feel satisfied that the music they love has been presented at its best. Secondly, there is a higher bar. Devotees of each genre should be so fascinated and delighted by the other that they want to hear more of it. Orpheus meets both those tests magnificently. Rather than being a fusion, Orpheus is a thrilling celebration of renaissance opera and Indian classical music, of their commonality and their possibilities for interchange.

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