Perfect as recital, lacking as theatre piece

(From left) Chan Wei En, William Keohavong and Cherie Tse in Oreste By Ifigenia.
(From left) Chan Wei En, William Keohavong and Cherie Tse in Oreste By Ifigenia. PHOTO: ARTS HOUSE LIMITED

In Oreste By Ifigenia, opera is put on trial and the voice triumphs.

The multimedia, the lighting, even the movement of the three sombre figures on the upper level of the former Parliament House are unnecessary.

All that stands out are the vocals of Cherie Tse and Chan Wei En, portraying siblings Ifigenia and Oreste in this reworking of Handel's opera based on classic Greek drama.

Unlike many other Greek classics favoured by Singaporean theatre-makers, this tale is not entirely a tragedy.

The siblings are separated by the Trojan War and the decrees of kings, but eventually reunite to topple the cruel laws that threaten their existence.

First, Ifigenia is to be sacrificed to ensure her father wins his battle against Troy, but she is saved and taken to serve as a priestess in the country of Tauris instead.



    Tan Shou Chen Singapore International Festival of Arts/Chamber, Festival House/ Last Saturday

Her brother Oreste flees to Tauris to save his own life and now it is Ifigenia's task to sacrifice him at the will of the king of that country. Obey the law or save a sibling?

Handel's opera brought in love interests for both and a battle with a tyrant king that ended with all living happily ever after.

This recreation directed by Tan Shou Chen with Ng Tian Hui as music director strips the cast to three: two singers and dancer William Keohavong who sometimes embodies the text and sometimes, confusingly, waits in silence.

The singing is superb, soprano Tse and countertenor Chan performing coloratura arias so naturally that the trills, flourishes and melodic leaps seem entirely their own invention.

One could sit through this performance, eyes shut, and come away satisfied - and this is how Oreste By Ifigenia misses several notes.

As a recital, this production is perfect. As an operatic staging, it misses several chances to draw the audience into engaging with the story.

The creative team fails to provide surtitles to help them follow the arc of the performance.

(Offering a flyer with English lyrics was not an acceptable substitute given the tiny font and impossibility of reading it during the show.)

Viewers left flailing to find meaning in the words thus had little leisure to consider how this production presented power structures, justice and gender equality.

With performers placed above the audience, viewers experience something similar to old Greek amphitheatres and were also meant to consider the laws passed in the old Parliament House, affecting their lives today just as Oreste and Ifigenia were in turn affected by laws they did not draft.

Perhaps the creative team assumed that the audience was familiar with the story, perhaps they assumed the music alone was enough to carry the day.

Either way, the otherwise exquisite production missed its mark - and that was the tragedy.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 27, 2019, with the headline Perfect as recital, lacking as theatre piece. Subscribe