Intense, beautiful Orpheus

24 Sep

With the main company in Japan, the ROH invited John Eliot Gardiner, the English Baroque Players and the Monteverdi Choir to come and do Gluck’s Orphée et Euridice. Hofesh Schechter and his company were invited to provide the dancing. I saw the performance on September 23rd.  It turned out to be a really successful one-off show.

I’ve never quite got the enthusiasm for this opera. To me, Gluck’s later works, particularly the two Iphigenia pieces are far stronger, more interesting and dramatic than this which isn’t much more than a pièce d’occasion, albeit with some fine music in it and, of course, a fine opportunity for whoever is playing the leading role – in this case, Juan Diego Florez.

This was, therefore, the Paris version extended ballet music and this performance struck me as making about as good a case as possible for that, at least until the last half hour.

The orchestra is moved onto the stage, which is in three sections which are raised and lowered. The orchestra spends part of the time above the action and some of the time below the stage.  When above, you have a maze of and darkness.  When below, you can see right to the back of the stage and light is filtered through holes in the huge plates that hang above the stage – to magical effect for the Dance of the Blessed Spiirts – you see see the chorus and dancers from afar, mistily.  For the journey back, the plates descend and it feels as if you are in a passage, pressurised.  There’s a single chair, a dummy Euridice to be burned.  The rest is done by the moving platforms and plates: it’s simple, austere, concentrated.

The playing is outstanding. Gardiner makes the piece sound dramatic, the EBS make the music sound raw, new and energetic with glorious trombones in the furies scene, superb flute and oboe solos for the Dance of the blessed spirits and the following scene. I don’t think I’ve heard Gluck sound better, more dramatic or more convincing.

At the start, the body of Euridice is burned. Orpheus, with only a chair, expresses his grief simply. Amor, cheekily got up in a gold trouser suit sends him on his way. The scene between Orpheus and Euridice is directed with urgency, beautifully choreographed and provides great tension. At the moment of her death, the lights switches, heartbreakingly into something looking a bit like real life. The return of Euridice turns out to be little more than an illusion and, after the dances, he body is burned again. Direction is shared between Schechter and John Fulljames, the latter showing the form that made him seem so special doing work for Opera North.  It’s simple, ungimmicky and gets the work absolutely right.

It all goes fine until those dances and I felt about them exactly as I did with those after Idomeneo that they feel utterly wrong these days. They seemed to me to add nothing to the opera beyond keeping us in the theatre for a further half hour. Schechter’s choreography which, until then had seemed to be sensible, matching the music and, at times very beautiful, became unintelligible to me – but then I’m not a dance enthusiast. I really question why they need to be done.

Juan Diego Florez sang Orpheus with what struck me as a superb understanding of the style. He was elegant, restrained but passionate with the intensity and honesty that make him such a great artist. He sang his bravura Act I aria marvellously, with flair and passion; he understandably charmed the spirits, provided the sense of wonder for the Elysian Fields and the right conflicted urgency and love for the dialogue with Euridice. His J’ai perdu mon Euridice was superbly sung, cool, intense and with a some really love piano singing – he seemed to be able to find greater subtelty in the lines than most mezzos or counter tenors that I’ve heard. Physically he conveyed the conflict in the scene with Euridice marvellously well.

Lucy Crowe made a bewildered, passionate Euridice, siging really convincingly. I liked Amanda Forsyth’s bravura, cheeky Amor very much indeed. The Monteverdi Choir sang outstandingly and acted rather convincingly.

This was as satisfying and convincing an Orpheus as I’ve seen and would have been perfect for me, were it not for that wretched ballet.


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