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Review: Hadestown at Union Chapel 25/01/11

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When Anaïs Mitchell conjured up her folk opera Hadestown, she clearly made it an alluring prospect. Just as Eurydice buckles to Hades’ proposition in Mitchell’s reimagining, the American singer-songwriter managed to snag a string of high profile musicians to guest on last year’s stunning recorded version.

By Sapphire Mason-BrownThe grand list of singers included Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon as Orpheus, Ani Difranco as Persephone, The Low Anthem’s Ben Knox Miller and Greg Brown as Hades (Mitchell sang Eurydice herself).

Whatever magic Mitchell pulled off to get all of these on board is pertinent, because the brilliant casting that helped made Hadestown on record such a triumph comes back to hamper the live rendition of the show, which was performed in London and Glasgow in January.

For the uninitiated, it’s worth explaining the bizarre concept of Hadestown: the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is transposed from ancient Greece to an impoverished world akin to Depression-era New Orleans. Hades runs a prospering underground city named Hadestown, and (rather than her trip resulting from deadly snakebite) Eurydice is lured to the underworld with the promise of being free from poverty, the real devil that bites in the South. But Orpheus has that godly set of pipes and his sorrowful warble melts Hades’ wife Persephone, so she convinces her hubby to let Orpheus take Eurydice back up to the surface on the condition that he can shuffle on up there without sneaking a peak at his lover. Ensuing Fail. Orpheus dies alone. Tough break.

At London’s Union Chapel, only Mitchell reprised her role, though 15 musicians help recreate  the rich character of Hadestown’s bop and swing. Considering the presumably limited amount of practice time that all the musicians had together, it’s a marvel that Mitchell kept things sounding as lush and intoxicating as was hoped for.

And when Mitchell is trying to replace vocalists the calibre  of Knox Miller and Justin Vernon at short notice, you can afford her some leniency. That said, a few of the stand-ins were disappointing and, in Martin Carthy’s case, even off-putting. Jim Moray made for a passable, if slightly feeble, Orpheus, while Devonian Jim Causley’s lumbering voice wasn’t close to matching Knox Miller’s chameleonic range.

Aging folk star Carthy was the huge mismatch as Hades though, effacing the memory of Greg Brown’s booming, gravelly performance by sounding like a fatherly Ian Dury uttering at a spoken word pace instead. Only Thea Gilmore, admirably
equalling Difranco’s power and sass, and the chorus of singers forming the Fates fit into their roles comfortably.

But despite the casting issues, the real merit of Hadestown lies in the concept, the emotional punch of the music and story, and Mitchell’s chirpy orchestration of the whole affair. It takes an impressively confident handling of things to bring a tale that lofty to life on a stage.

Photo by Sapphire Mason-Brown

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