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Monteverdi: Flame and Frost
Published on Friday, 12 August 2011

3 stars

theSpace on Niddry St (venue website)
5-6, 8-13 Aug, 10:10pm-11:00pm
Reviewed by Lee Zhao

 Family-friendly. Suitable for all ages.

Monteverdi: Flame and Frost is basically a Frankenstein chamber opera, formed by taking bits and pieces from composer Monteverdi's surviving operas and combining them into a new work – whose plot revolves around the story of Echo and Narcissus. In its listing, the show promises to use Monteverdi's music to breathe new life into the myth.

One of the biggest pitfalls of performing opera, and indeed any staged work with live classical music, on the Fringe is the musical accompaniment. It is not uncommon for a production to cop out and go with an electric keyboard over an orchestra. So you can imagine my delight when I entered the venue and saw an actual harpsichord! There's something magical about having the real thing and frankly, Monteverdi's music deserves that. The singers were equally delightful. Although some of the Italian pronunciation in the chorus was a little suspect at times, this took little away from the production as a whole.

What was less welcome was the rather anachronistic jazz intermezzo. As soon as a syncopated harpsichord and a muted trumpet kicked in, the mood vanished and the flow interrupted. Plus, this jazzed-up aria, together with the late night timeslot, is doing few favours for the countertenor struggling with his voice.

Very little had been done to make the show specific to Echo and Narcissus. Since there was no English translation of the Italian lyrics, the generic scenes of a courtship, a jilting and a moonlit lament, could have been describing any story of love and betrayal from Ariadne and Theseus to Ashley and Cheryl Cole.  This is possibly  deliberate: the lyrics are from other operas and were meant to tell a different story altogether, thus the plot unfolds not through the exact words, but instead through physical actions and music. But if the aim was to showcase and celebrate the transcendental nature of Monteverdi's music, what was up with the jazz?

In conclusion, I found Monteverdi: Flame and Frost an admirable but flawed endeavour. I appreciate the group wanted to do more than just a chamber recital of Monteverdi's music. But a bit of me was always thinking it would have been better if the show had breathed new life into one of the existing operas, such as L'Orfeo, with a new production rather than setting the music to a different myth. Why tinker with a masterpiece?

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