This ravishing production of a French chamber opera from 1686 La descente d’Orphée aux enfers (The Descent of Orpheus into the Underworld) by Marc-Antoine Charpentier was a delight in every respect - the singing, the authentic instruments, the stagecraft, with imaginative use of dance, all worked together to create a moving rendering of this poignant story.
Charpentier's early version of a tale familiar to us in other, later operatic versions, well deserves to be revived. It epitomizes everything that the French critic, the Marquis d'Argens said about French opera - that although it lacked the virtuosity and showy arias of Italian opera, it excelled in tasteful simplicity, subtlety, nobility and expressiveness.
Tenor Samuel Boden, well-known as a specialist in Baroque roles, was an ideal Orpheus, with a golden, glowing voice and heroic mien. Grief-stricken when his beautiful bride Eurydice dies on their wedding-day, the legendary hero resolves to follow her to the Underworld and beseech Pluto, monarch of the dead, to allow her to return to life. The denizens of the Underworld, on hearing him, declare that his singing has given them temporary respite from their torments, and Pluto's Queen, Proserpine, is so moved that she implores her husband to grant the young man's request.
Pluto, faced with her persistent pleas, responds in an ambiguous way. He says "yes" but is really saying "no". He tells Orpheus that he will allow Eurydice to follow her husband out of his realm and back to the upper world, on condition that Orpheus never, on the way, once looks back to make sure that she is there.
Of course he knows that Orpheus will not be able to keep this stipulation. The fear of being deceived, the overwhelming desire to see his beloved's face again, will be too much for him. And so it proves. Eurydice, in despair, sinks back to the Underworld and all is lost.
In the lead role of Eurydice, Lauren Lodge Campbell was also perfect, with her sweet nightingale voice and exquisite phrasing. She will shortly be appearing in a production of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas at the Theatre Royal, Bath, if you want to hear her again.
Lila Chrisp shone in the role of Prosperpine. This young mezzo-soprano, who was a Young Artist at Garsington Opera this past season, will soon be a hot property. Henry Waddington (bass) as Pluto, is a familiar face on the operatic stage and was suitably fearsome in a suave sort of way.
The whole production was a rare treat not to be missed, and the audience had the additional pleasure of hearing a performance of the oratorio Jephte (c.1650) by Giacomo Carissimi, with whom Charpentier may have studied when he was in Rome. This gem, telling the Biblical story of Jephtha's rash vow to sacrifice whatever he first saw on returning home after his victory, was performed in an outdoor woodland setting which (despite the not quite ideal weather conditions) created a relaxed atmosphere and gave us a chance to hear Lauren Lodge Campbell in the role of Jephta's unfortunate daughter, who rushes out to greet her father on his return. The instrumentalists also performed music by Rebelle and Forqueray for violins, viole da gamba and theorbo.
Now in its third year, the Vache Baroque Festival in Buckinghamshire has established itself as an important event and in a calendar filling up with musical performances, deserving of the highest priority. Combining idyllic surroundings with distinguished productions it is also laudable for its education programme, which includes workshops for schoolchildren, a Children's Choir and a Piano Masterclass weekend.
If you have not yet booked, pick up the phone now!
Friday 2 and Sunday 4 September at The Vache, Chalfont St. Giles, HP8 4SD
La descente d’Orphée aux enfers (1686) by Marc-Antoine Charpentier
An opera in two acts prefaced with sound installations and pre-show pop-up performances, including Jephte (1648) by Giacomo Carissimi [20 mins]
Samuel Boden Orphée
Henry Waddington Pluton
Lauren Lodge-Campbell Euridice
Naho Koizumi Daphné
Katie-Louise Dobson Enone
Lila Chrisp Arethuze/Proserpine
Alexander Chance Ixion
Lars Fischer Tantale
Jamie Woollard Apollon/Tityé
Fi Silverthorn Dancer
Kenji Matsunaga Dancer
Jonathan Darbourne Music Director
Jeanne Pansard-Besson Director
Simeon Qsyea Choreographer
Laura Jane Stanfield Designer