Taking the boat from Festival Pier to Trinity Buoy Wharf I wondered if this was all just a ruse created by aggrieved directors and production companies. Here was a boat filled with the critics of London making its way down the Thames for Silent Opera’s L’Orfeo and I’m sure that many were wishing us choppy water and sea-sickness. Thankfully we arrived safely at the obscure venue in buoyant spirits, prepared for an intriguing night of experimental opera.
For those unfamiliar with the concept, Silent Opera provides audience members with wireless headphones, while providing the acting company and musicians with small microphones. This allows for a moving operatic experience wherein everyone hears the same result, regardless of relative position within the venue. So the audience enters Trinity Buoy Wharf preparing to hear a 17th century play wrought through 21st century technology.
Director Daisy Evans and designer Katherine Heath embrace this apparent disjunction and create a sort of cyber-pagan aesthetic. The cast wear traditional looking woollen clothing accented by flashing LEDs and make no attempt to hide their headphones. The set itself holds no secrets as the on-running technical support can all be observed throughout the show. A special mention must also be made for the second space in the production, the ‘river room’, an inspired and beautifully lit interpretation of the River Styx. It all works: the audience is enraptured by this vital new setting of Monteverdi’s four hundred year old piece.
The cast themselves play their parts with absolute commitment. Caroline MacPhie sings her multiple roles strongly while Timothy Dickinson’s Caronte is chilling. William Berger as Orfeo rightfully steals the show however and is perfectly cast to draw the anguish and dilemma of the harried character. The singing drops at times and cannot be considered perfect but overall is strong, especially considering the movement of the actors who run around the set, jump from ledges and switch between Italian and English with barely a breath taken between.
For the most part the audience barely gets to take this breath either. The transitions between spaces are handled quickly and maintain the pace of the piece, mitigating the fears of the more traditional opera fans in the audience. It is worth mentioning that the interval is slightly too long and left people wondering how long it can really take Orfeo to find the gates to the underworld. More broadly, the production is not technically flawless. As the audience moves further from the first room the quality of the headphones is somewhat diminished. The levels of audience interaction are also somewhat oversold as our “final choice” of the night was handled by one evidently heartless (or perhaps hapless) member who decided on Orfeo’s fate.
“The boatman is leaving” comes the ominous call after the production: a chilling thought that left me to wonder if the return to Southbank via our own River Styx was towards or away from the underworld. With the West End crying out for new and exciting productions, Silent Opera’s viscerally exciting and charged production of L’Orfeo is certainly more heaven than hell.