Christoph Willibald GLUCK(1714-1787) Orfeo ed Euridice - Opera in Three Acts (1762)
Orfeo - Anita Rachvelishvili (alto); Euridice - Maite Alberola (soprano);
Amore - Auxiliadora Toledano (soprano)
Palau de la Musica Catalana Chamber Choir
Orquesta bandArt/Gordan Nikolic (violin)
Staged by La Fura dels Baus.
Director: Carlus Padrissa
Costume designer: Aitziber Sanz. Lighting designer: Carles Rigual
rec. live, Castell de Peralada Festival, 2011
Format: NTSC; Picture 16:9, HD. Sound DVD: DTS 5.1, PCM Stereo
Booklet: English, German, French
Subtitles: Italian (original language), English, German, French,
Spanish, Chinese, Korean
UNITEL/CLASSICA C MAJOR
Most great composers reach a stage in their creative output
when they recognise that what they had created was a mere staging-post
in their possibilities and aspire to move the genre forward.
Think Beethoven and his Third Symphony or Rossini as he approached
William Tell and then laid down his operatic pen. Verdi,
in his long compositional life was to experience two such periods.
The first came between the third act of Luisa Miller,
along with Stiffelio, and the subsequent Rigoletto
when he took giant leaps in dramatic musical complexity and
character delineation in his operas. The second came with his
penultimate work, Otello, with its move away from the
set-pieces of the preceding Aida into a more seamless
style with the music moving the drama forward in a stream of
dramatic creativity uninterrupted by the norm of style in which
he had previously written.
The situation with Gluck was not much different than that with
his illustrious successors. He had become frustrated by the
static nature of the genre as is well illustrated in the treatment
of the Orfeo theme, one of the most durable of operatic
themes. It is the basis of Monteverdi’s work of that name
which many consider the very first opera worthy of staging.
Gluck’s version came over 150 years later. In the meantime
the genre of opera had grown massively and evolved its own rather
With his version of Orfeo, and in subsequent works, Gluck
consciously sought to break away from those static conventions
of recitative and aria, which focused attention on the singers
at the expense of the music and drama of the piece. These works
became his so-called reform operas. Working closely with his
librettist Calzabigi (1714-1795) Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice
was created with carefully constructed scenes. It introduced
dances and chorus to give ‘the language of the heart,
strong passions, interesting situations and constantly varied
spectacle’. This instead of the static ‘flowery
descriptions, superfluous comparisons and sententious, cold
moralising’ of what had gone before. In my view these
objectives were magnificently realised in this wonderfully melodic
and dramatically taut work. Its structure is such as to have
drawn Berlioz and Wagner to make revised editions.
So far so simple. Gluck, however, cast a contralto castrati
as his Orfeo for the first production in Vienna on the 5 October
1762. But the age of the castrati, the great primas of Handel’s
operas, was drawing to a close. They had not been acceptable
in France where a form of high tenor had evolved. For the work’s
premiere in Paris in 1774 Gluck re-wrote the role of Orfeo for
this high tenor voice. He also, like Verdi and Wagner later,
had to provide additional ballet music for the Paris performance.
Other performances and recordings, particularly in the past
fifteen years or so, have reverted to period instruments. These
have also involved the singing of the role of Orfeo by a counter-tenor
or falsettist with no use of vibrato by soloists or orchestra.
The problem with most counter-tenors is that whilst they are
strong at the top of the voice they often lack strength lower
down their range. The contralto castrato at the premiere had
a range of three octaves. Some female contralto singers such
as Ewa Podles, the Orfeo on the Arts CD, have a similar range
up to a brilliant top C. Such singers are few and far between.
Anita Rachvelishvili in this performance, whilst having rich
timbres in her lower voice is not yet of their number.
However, that is to jump ahead somewhat. The first matter is
to address the raison d’être for this performance
which influences the basis of its unique, even idiosyncratic,
character. The performance and staging is by the theatre collective
La Fura dels Baus under the direction of Carlus Padrissa
and was presented at the 25th Peralada Festival, Spain, 2011.
The costumes are modern and accompanied by a very basic set
dominated by a large vertical slab. The scenic effects are dominated
by a constantly changing series of projections, so many as sometimes
to disturb concentration on the music and singing and often
barely relevant to the story, or at least so to my eyes. A further
idiosyncrasy is the presence of at least some of the orchestra
on the stage, often moving about and becoming involved in the
action of the story and whilst playing their instruments. They
are costumed in what looks like body stockings with black vertical
stripes running their length. The stage musicians are at first
dominated by the strings and for a few moments I thought them
a period band. The strange and fractured acoustic seemed to
betray other facts and greater numbers.
Orfeo is dressed in what appears to be a low cut blue trouser
suit; so low-cut as to reveal two ample denials of masculinity.
Add a long flowing hairstyle more suitable to Carmen
and gender confusion could take over. Euridice is dressed in
a magnificent white low-cut ball gown with a décolleté
that would win, erm, hands down, in any Double D cup competition
around! Amor, often appearing and singing whilst suspended and
accompanied by a dancer is costumed and coutured in dominant
gold. Poor Orfeo has to climb the central pillar even as it
extends, albeit that she has a clearly visible harness in support
and which comes in handy when she later abseils down. Harnesses
abound with all three singers in the final trio (CH.43) swinging
about in cradles.
None of the solo singing is inadequate and often better than
that. It is not, however, in the style generally associated
with Gluck, pre- or post- reform! In a period of operatic performance
where minimalist staging is the name of the game, this is the
other end of the spectrum. Excessive visual distraction and
unidiomatic musical accompaniment leave it in a musical fashion
world of its own that may appeal to some non-Gluckian opera
lovers. The advertising blurb notes that this is the first Orfeo
ed Euridice to appear on Blu-ray. Alternative visual performances
of this great work are strictly limited. Despite its over-luxurious
orchestration, stick with that under Raymond Leppard and Janet
Baker or wait until some enterprising company gets Ewa Podles
and a period band together under a conductor immersed in the
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