The dance opera “Orfeo in India” underlined the healing power of music and love

Despite the December season surfeit, the Sir Mutha Venkatasubba Rao Concert Hall drew an impressive audience for “Orfeo in India”, co-produced by Darpana, Ahmedabad, and Les Autres Musictheatre, Amsterdam, presented by Mediamix in association with Indian Council for Cultural Relations. Chennai had a rare chance to listen to some live opera in this adaptation of Claudio Monteverdi's “L'Orfeo”, with three fine western vocalists, two Indian playback singers, accompanied by an eight-member orchestra of viola da gamba, harpsichord, baroque flutes and violin, Indian violin and flute, gotuvadyam and diverse drums. This work was directed by Miranda Lakerveld and choreographed by Mallika Sarabhai.

The Orpheus-Eurydice myth is the tragedy of a bride killed by a viper. The shattered husband tries to reclaim her from the underworld with no weapon but his peerless music. Comforting Hope deserts him on the shore of Styx, where boatman Charon refuses to ferry a mortal to the land of death. Orpheus sings to lull Charon and rouse Pluto, ruler of the underworld.

A deeply moved Proserpina begs husband Pluto to show mercy. Pluto agrees to let the girl go, but only if Orpheus walks out of his dark realm without looking back. Orpheus does turn back and loses his Eurydice forever. Finally, Orpheus is destroyed by frenzied Bacchantes and ascends (or departs) to another world.

What better way to centre-stage peace and compassion in our violent world than to tell the story of a musician who moved human and non-human hearts to pity, mercy, compassion? In the process, a sense of irreversible loss, the overriding emotion of our times, was effortlessly actualised by every audio and visual component, including light, colour and costume.

Familiar technique

The now familiar doppelganger technique of pairing two actors for each character proved perfect for highlighting the theme of real/illusory, life/death, light/shadow, upper/underworld, the fleshly and the ghostly, and served to contrast mortals with nymphs, spirits and gods. Though the sequence in which Revanta Sarabhai, who played Orfeo, spurned his double (singer Arnout Lems) seemed patched on, it did underscore self-blame and split personality.

Professionalism and seamless flow from start to finish were perks. The singing was effective for the production. Antje Lohse as Hope and Proserpina touched hearts other than those of the iron-souled underworld, as did the songs of Orpheus strewn with vocal surprises and echoic patterns. The orchestral medleys had Indian ragas such as Charukesi and Revati, peeping at western strains. Even the un-poetic Hindi songs managed to fit into the whole scheme. The flutes fulfilled the need of piercing poignancy demanded by the theme.

The minuses? We know that art thrives on contrasts, conflicts, paradoxes. The central emotion or sthayibhava has to be evoked with a host of varying pluralities, enriching the texture. But “Orfeo in India” became a linear progression of gloom and more gloom. The nuptial festivities at the start and the wild finale were not sufficient to stem the satiating tide of grief.

Even Proserpina's intercession remained a tame platitude, though the situation warranted more conflicting emotions from the woman who had herself been abducted by Pluto, and consigned to the sunless netherworld.

With this paucity of contrast motifs, the choreography remained apt rather than striking. This was alleviated by the intelligent setting, using less to achieve more, especially by exploiting the vertical dimension. Cloth and threads streaming down to costumes of greens, magentas and coppery reds, became tree, lyre, river, boat, creating differing worlds of mortal and immortal existence in three different spheres. The journey out of Hades was achieved with spartan simplicity — a transparent cloth dividing the worlds of the lovers, whose synchronised movements made for dual moments in and out of time, as did the emergence of the denizens and their praise of Orpheus' mesmerising melody.

The programme notes described “Orfeo in India” as linked to the idea of separate worlds in two different continents, and of a fixed cultural/racial/individual identity as a threat to communal harmony. However, what actually came through was the sense of loss and the need for pity. At a time when the arts are marginalised as never before, it was good to be reminded of music as a catalyst of change, as the healing power of love.

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Arts, Entertainment & EventsMay 14, 2012