Barefoot Opera brought an unusual double bill to Grimeborn at the Arcola. They paired a shortened version of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Eurydice with Zanetto, a rare one-act opera by Mascagni. Both served primarily to highlight the musical and dramatic talents of Emma Roberts, who sang the roles of Orfeo and Zanetto, and Lizzie Holmes, who sang Eurydice and Silvia. The new venue designed by the Arcola to offer a performance space that feels covid-safe is a mixed blessing and extraneous noise proved a distraction at moments in the Gluck performance but the Barefoot team brought some moments of opera magic despite the less than ideal surroundings.
There are many versions of Gluck’s Orfeo so Barefoot can be forgiven for missing the happy ending of the original written for Vienna in 1762. The elimination of all the choral music is perhaps an inevitable response to the pandemic but ending the piece immediately after the famous “Che Faro” aria felt very abrupt and unsatisfying. This was particularly the case because Emma Roberts, with a strong and emotive mezzo voice, had given a powerful and heart-rending version of the aria and the work needed a more formal and measured ending. Lizzie Holmes, as Eurydice always does, plays second fiddle to her husband but made the most of her few opportunities to shine – this was particularly the case in the moments of mournful music as she laments the fact that Orfeo seems to have lost his love for her. Katie Blackwell, standing in at the very last moment as Amore, was a creditable goddess taking mischievous delight in the predicament of the lovers.
The set, which served for both operas, was a wooden platform with a small shrine at the back – for Orfeopaying tribute to the beauty of the dead Eurydice and for Zanetto to the intoxicating joys of love (and perhaps alcohol). Movable boxes covered in graffiti offered flexible props. Costumes were simple but effective. For Orfeo wandering into Hades and Zanetto wandering towards Florence a flowing summer coat over baggy trousers worked well – for the Mascagni piece Silvia’s glamorous dress was less explicable – perhaps she had just slipped out of a party in her “hotel”.
Zanetto was written by Mascagni as a one-act piece that could be coupled with his big hit Cavalleria Rusticana – it was first performed in 1896 but it never succeeded as a companion piece for the great verismo masterpiece and, although it worked well in an intimate setting in Pisaro, it didn’t impress the audience at the grand La Scala in Milan. Silvia is a Renaissance courtesan who is found bewailing her fate – to be desired by many men who fail to inspire feelings of love and longing in her. Into her scene of depression wanders Zanetto, a young minstrel, and she immediately falls for him. But, perhaps moved by his naivety, she flirts with him and then sends him on his way without revealing her true identity. This lyric scene (as Mascagni called it) is for a soprano and a “trouser role” contralto – think Violetta Valery meets Cherubino. Lizzie Holmes shone as the sad courtesan and her lovely soprano voice at last had a chance ring out. Emma Roberts again sang with assurance and beauty but the comic role of the callow youth was not so suited to her acting style.
Lesley-Anne Sammons on keyboard and Lucy Mulgan on bass, both considerable performers in their own right, provided the right musical baseline for what was essentially a showcase for two fine young singers. They did not disappoint.
- Composers: Gluck and Mascagni
- Director: Lysanne Van Overbeek
- Musical Director: Lesley-Anne Sammons
- Photography Peter Mould
- Performers include: Emma Roberts, Lizzie Holmes, Katie Blackwell.
- Venue: Arcola Outside
- Dates: various venues until 02 October 2021
- Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes