It’s time to rethink opera. Director Jaco Bouwer’s Orfeo reinvents the genre with a young cast in contemporary dress and metafictional playfulness. Inspired by interpretations of Orpheus’s journey into the underworld as a metaphor for the creative process, Bouwer uses the opera to explore the concept of the image.
The curtain rises on Orfeo standing before a massive blank canvas at the centre of the stage. Alongside the canvas are worktables covered in tools and paint cans. He pops in a pair of earphones as Music sings about her inspirational qualities and the creative process begins. When the nymphs and shepherds come on stage, they begin the work of constructing and decorating the set themselves. A tarpaulin is stretched out to provide a forest backdrop, fake rocks are arranged on the ground and bird props are set on perches.
The goal is not verisimilitude, however. The resulting set doesn’t look like a forest but rather the set of a forest, especially because of the green screen at its centre. Toward the end of the opera, the set is reversed, so only the cast can see the forest setting they’re supposed to be in, while the audience sees the wooden framework of the set pieces. “My approach to Orfeo,” Bouwer explains in the director’s note, “seeks to deconstruct the very apparatus that make up theatre.”
Other locations are not literally interpreted either, but convey a mood or idea rather than a place. Orfeo’s despair, for example, is reflected by empty black spaces. Hell, which can be said to represent the subconscious imagination, is a surreal onslaught of colourful light in which the characters perform as if in a music video. Quite often they behave as if to create a striking image rather than just act out the scene. At one point they arrange themselves as if for a Vanity Fair photo shoot.
In addition, the cast aren’t dressed to represent the mythical characters they’re playing, but more like the young thespians they actually are. They wouldn’t look out of place if they walked straight off the stage and into the hipster bars in the city centre.
The music and lyrics, however, are from the seventeenth century. The score is simple and understated, not like the rousing pieces you would normally associate with opera. It functions more like a soundtrack than the main feature, and it’s a decidedly odd soundtrack at that – much of it is reminiscent of quiet moments in church when the organist plays an interlude during the service.
Overall, the juxtaposition of classic and modern doesn’t quite work. The opera’s edgy contemporary aspects make the lyrics and music feel woefully out of date, despite the skilful execution by Camerata Tinta Barocca. The subtitles are tiresome in comparison to what’s happening on stage, and it helps to know what the plot is so that you can ignore the words and focus on the imagery and vocals. The soloists deliver strong performances, and despite the fact that there are only twelve members in the cast, their powerful voices meld into a rich sound.
What this all suggests is that it’s time for opera to modernise – why not have fresh narratives and composition to complement the creativity that Cape Town Opera has offered us in Orfeo? Why sing in Italian when we’ve got twelve official languages to draw from? CTO has pushed opera beyond its stereotypes this year; let’s hope it continues to do so.
Orfeo runs at the Artscape Opera House, Cape Town until 26 November 2016.