Shining young stars in opera

REVIEW / OPERA

ORPHEUS IN THE UNDERWORLD

New Opera Singapore

Victoria Theatre/Last Friday

New Opera Singapore's production of the comic operetta Orpheus In The Underworld by Jacques Offenbach celebrates the fifth anniversary of the company. Under artistic director Jeong Ae Ree's leadership, it has made huge strides artistically, catalysed many Singapore singers to take up careers in opera and helped attract new audiences to the genre.

Presented in English, this production was based on Jeremy Sam's English version and adapted by David Charles Tay.

Music director and conductor Chan Wei Shing, stage director Stefanos Rassios and chorus director Lim Ai Hooi put on a performance that reflects the increasing depth and ability in Singapore opera production and the blossoming of the country's operatic stars of the future.

Offenbach took a satirical dig at the Greek myth of Orpheus, the legendary musician and poet who was persuaded by Public Opinion to enter the Underworld to bring back his wife Eurydice, who had died of a snakebite while being seduced by the Greek god Pluto, disguised as the shepherd boy Aristaeus.

Meanwhile, Eurydice finds herself discovering the pleasures of the Underworld, and as Orpheus arrives to rescue her, Jupiter, king of gods, sky and lightning sets the condition that Orpheus must not lay eyes on his wife until they have both left the Underworld.

A last-minute bolt of lightning startles Orpheus, causing him to look back, and so the opera ends with Orpheus condemned to remain in the Underworld with his beloved.

The lead roles for this evening were played by soprano Teng Xiang Ting (Eurydice) and tenors Jonathan Charles Tay (Orpheus), David Charles Tay (Pluto) and Leslie Tay (Jupiter).

Trained lawyer and postgraduate voice student Teng's singing and acting have matured over the years. Her voice was strong, clear and accurate and Eurydice's solos were well within her grasp. Equally impressive was Leslie Tay, whose singing and acting were the most convincing among the male cast.

Dialogue and accent can be a mixed bag in Singapore opera productions, but Teng and Leslie Tay were exemplary in their use of neutral, local accents and their natural, flowing dialogue.

Jonathan Tay and brother David were also well up to their singing roles, with Jonathan proving to be the more lyrical and David the more dramatic of the pair.

Manhattan School of Music doctoral student David Tay delivered his dialogue in a thicker, baritone voice which sounded unnecessarily put on. The same can be said of Grace Kuo (Juno, Jupiter's wife), whose parody of a very nasal New York accent was grating.

The music-making provided much to admire.

Teng's "violin duet" with Orpheus and her "fly duet" with Jupiter, who had transformed into a buzzing fly, both hit the mark. Orpheus' legendary violin playing, satirically mocked and maligned by all the characters, was played with class by concertmaster Chua Lik Wuk.

Offenbach's Orpheus has been described by French musicologists Clement and Larousse as "a coarse and grotesque parody" and New Opera Singapore did not shy from pushing this further.

From Bacchus' opening narrative, loaded with sexual innuendo, to Jupiter's shocking pink costume complete with matching padded bra, and unashamedly phallic props, this production left little to the imagination, but the audience lapped it up.

Given the high standard that the company has attained, New Opera Singapore is surely ready to look beyond titillation to attract audiences?

The highlight of every performance of Orpheus is the Infernal Galop, popularly known as the "can-can".

By the time this came on, most of the female cast were dressed in slips and Eurydice dressed in even less, so it was just as well that the customary high kicks were left out.

Still, New Opera Singapore's quality cast, strong chorus and excellent pit orchestras provided a rousing ending to this highly enjoyable evening of light opera.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 01, 2016, with the headline 'Shining young stars in opera'. Print Edition | Subscribe