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Opera Forward Festival, Amsterdam — grief, loss and a baroque Harvey Weinstein

Opera Forward Festival, Amsterdam — grief, loss and a baroque Harvey Weinstein

March 29
08:29 2018

Dinah and Sam both miss their son’s school play. Abraham and Sarah view the impending destruction of a nearby city with alarm. Orfeo cannot be with Euridice.

Themes of grief, loss and catastrophe permeate this year’s Opera Forward Festival in Amsterdam. After the bold and messy business of launching the festival last year with brand new operas, the event looks backwards in its second year, choosing the safer paths of Henze, Bernstein, MacMillan, and the 17th-century Roman composer Stefano Landi.

It is not immediately obvious why an early baroque opera should take centre stage in a festival devoted to contemporary music, but Amsterdam has always found the new within the old, and Landi was an innovator in his time. La morte d’Orfeo enters the 2018 programme as the love child of Pierre Audi, his parting production after 30 years at the helm of the Netherlands Opera.

As a figure, Orfeo has followed Audi for three decades, from his benchmark Monteverdi cycle in the 1990s until now, his character evolving as time has passed. Audi’s Orfeo, once primarily a bereaved husband, became an egocentric artist, and finds himself, in 2018, a perpetrator, consumed by darkness, a baroque Harvey Weinstein.

Audi’s Orfeo is driven by his desire for artistic acclaim to destroy the people around him, and he pays a high price. It is a darker note than Audi may have wished for his swan song; at the same time, it is too slight a parting, given the weight of what he has achieved during years of steering his house on a determinedly individualistic course through the international opera world.

The slick modernity of Amsterdam’s Muziekgebouw lends a visual edge to Audi’s production, but the acoustic is too dry for Christophe Rousset’s Les Talens Lyriques, the virtuosic cornetti and lush continuo barely audible in the back rows. Robby Duiveman’s costumes are bizarrely incoherent, with Orfeo appearing first as the Little Prince, later as a black-clad ghost, and finally as a disco ball. Christof Hetzer’s sets are similarly disjunct, red velvet and black plastic curtains telling us only that we are in an undefined space. The cast performs as a close-knit ensemble, taking on multiple roles, in what adds up to a deeply committed musical account of a work that — even shortened drastically — seems destined to fall straight back into its previous state of neglect.


Audi’s tenacious support of young talent is reflected in his choice of conductor Duncan Ward and director Ted Huffman for a double bill of Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti and James MacMillan’s Clemency. Ward fares better than Huffman, abetted by clean and focused playing from the Nederlands Kamerorkest, and by a strong young cast.

But both are hampered from the start by this unlikely pairing of works, Bernstein’s darkly droll family drama against MacMillan’s bleak threnody of awful foreshadowed violence. Huffman attempts to bring unity by darkening the Bernstein, adding Junior as a silent teenaged son drinking and partying his way towards oblivion, costuming the Greek chorus trio as sinister clowns. Along the way he loses Bernstein’s levity, which is quite an achievement.

Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Trouble in Tahiti’ © Hans van den Bogaard

Clemency was, quite possibly, never a good piece to begin with, MacMillan’s reasons for emulating gloomy Hebraic chant and dwelling on Sarah’s ambivalent pregnancy hard to decipher. Huffman and his team let the action play in a nebulous otherworld at the bottom of Dinah and Sam’s swimming pool, costuming the visiting strangers with too-obvious suicide vests, and losing what little tension the work already has with its juxtaposition of the domestic with the supernatural.


Audi leaves an opera company which has presented major 20th- and 21st-century works perhaps better than any other. The idea of an additional festival which moves new music in more radical forms to different spaces for new audiences is one that still needs time and space to grow.

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