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SIFA 2019: Oreste by Ifigenia by Tan Shou Chen and Ng Tian Hui (Review)

Screenshot 2019-05-25 at 12.16.25 AM

Photo by Samuel Woo

Reclaiming gender in this new adaptation of a classic Greek tale.

In its various adaptations, Ifigenia at Tauris has seesawed between two perspectives. In Euripedes’ original play, like its title, the priestess Ifigenia took centrestage, the protagonist in this drama about a sister who has to make a choice between obeying the law and sacrificing her brother Oreste to the gods, or rebel and save him. In Handel’s 1734 adaptation, the Italian opera was renamed Oreste, and naturally, shifted the focus to Oreste instead and the drama of his trials and tribulations as a victim instead. Yet, the role of Oreste was written and composed for a mezzo-soprano, leading plenty of women to take on the role instead, and muddying the stability of gender within the work.

With director Tan Shou Chen and music director/conductor Ng Tian Hui’s new adaptation of the work, Oreste by Ifigenia seeks to reclaim Euripedes’ Ifigenia-centric telling of the tale, while maintaining Handel’s score, resulting in a brand new work that is winds up fiercely feminist as it empowers Ifigenia (soprano Cherie Tse), and casts Oreste (countertenor Chan Wei En) as a character to be saved by his sister instead, dressed in a bloodied red shirt that victimizes rather than places him on a pedestal. In addition, gone are the additional characters, leaving only the brother-sister duo performing arias and duets, while dancer Billy Keohavong is introduced to act as the embodiment of the various forces seeking to separate the siblings from each other over the course of the opera.

Staged in the Arts House Chamber, the setup is rather unusual in that we are seated on the first floor with the orchestra, while the entire opera is staged on the second floor amidst the seats, where swathes of white cloth are lain over them. This acts as a canvas and projection screen for Irfan Kasban’s multimedia design, featuring disembodied eyes and arms to produce alien landscapes emphasising Oreste’s presence as an intruder in a foreign land, while occasionally, tessellating white ceilings make the space feel almost temple-like, which, along with tiny candle-like lights adorning the seats, elevates the opera to something sacred. Evidently, his experience as a theatre maker pays off here, allowing the drama and emotions of Oreste to be further emphasised.

In spite of their youth, both Cherie and Wei En are skilled singers, making full use of their opportunity given in this opera to show off their vocal range, hitting impossibly high notes with deceptive ease while putting all their emotion into their voice, their anxiety, fears and joys coming through strongly as they repeated verse after verse. Under Shou Chen’s direction, there is the sense that both siblings are constantly being distanced from each other, singing to each other from across the aisle rather than beside each other, and emphasising their similar mutual apprehension. Both are well supported by the small but effective chamber orchestra, who, when we turn to look at them, seem to emanate joy themselves as they play with enthusiasm and feeling, complete with instruments such as a harpsichord and baroque cello to get the sound just right, thanks to Tian Hui and his team’s efforts.

In his performance, dancer Billy Keohavong is evidently fully committed as he performs roles ranging from the Furies mentally tormenting Oreste, to King Toante seek justice and execution, to quite simply, an almost spiritual figure skulking the space, ever-present and ominous. While one would have liked to see his role more firmly established and used more effectively to bring out the opera’s themes, when he does perform, Keohavong feels like a force of nature, the backdrop of black storm clouds only heightening his role as a tempest-like wraith.

As a response to Handel’s Oreste, Oreste by Ifigenia is executed with a clear idea in mind that clarifies Oreste’s role as a melodramatic, almost feminine, ‘damsel in distress’ type figure, and refocuses our attention on Ifigenia as the ultimate arbitrator of justice and woman in power. While on occasion, one does feel the strain of trying to piece together the cohesion of the entire opera, what this work does succeed at is creating moment after moment that, if you paused at any given time, emanates the idea of fatalism between the two siblings. Inexplicably drawn towards each other, we feel the sanctity of these invisible blood ties and cannot help but want them to find in each other the long-awaited family reunion they’ve needed all these years.

Performance attended 26/5/19

Oreste by Ifigenia played at the Arts House Chamber from 25th to 26th May 2019. 

The 2019 Singapore International Festival of the Arts runs across various venues from 16th May to 2nd June 2019. For more information and the full lineup of shows, visit their website 

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