Orfeo ed Euridice


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ORFEO ED EURIDICE

Composer: Christoph Willibald Gluck

Libretto: Ranieri de' Calzabigi

Based on the Greek myth of Orfeus

First Produced: Vienna, 1762

Present Company: Festival Castell de Peralada, 2011

Staged by La Fura dels Baus

Director: Carlus Parrissa

Costumes: Altziber Sanz

Lighting: Carles Riguai

Video: David Cid & Sagar Fornies

Interactive Graphics: Román Torre & Pelayo Méndez

Video Director: Tiziano Mancini

Cor de Cambra del Palau de la Música Catalana

Orchestra: Orquesta bandArt

bandArt leader: Gordan Nikolić

 

Cast:

Orfeo: Anita Rachvelishvili

Euridice: Maite Alberola

Amore: Auxiliadora Toledano

 

Specs:

Resolution: 1080i

Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1

Disc size: BD-50

Opera: 32.54 GB

Bit Rate: High (32~35 Mbps)

Italian DTS-HD MA 5.1

Italian LPCM 2.0 stereo

Subtitles: Italian, English, French, German, Spanish, Korean & Chinese

Region: All

Opera runtime: 110 minutes

C Major 2012

 

Grade

Conception & Staging: A-

Costumes: B

Casting: A

Singing: A+

Orchestra: A

Music Direction: A+

Video Direction: A-

Image: A-

Audio: A

Extras Features: D

Recommendation: A-


 

Background

Orpheus, so the ancient legend goes, could charm any living creature with his music.  It was said he even had power over stones and the course of rivers.  When he voyaged with the Argonauts he was able to drown out the songs of the deadly Sirens with his music.  His abilities were put to the test when his wife, Eurydice, died and he journeyed to the Underworld in an attempt to soothe the guardians of the world below and bring her back.

 

In the mythic legend, which differs in two important particulars from Ranieri de' Calzabigi’s reformist adaptation for Gluck’s opera, Orpheus first obtains permission from Hades and Persephone to allow Eurydice to follow Orpheus to the land of the living on the condition that he not look back until they both reached the upper world.  But at the last moment, unable to resist any longer he turns to look at her, only to see her vanish forever.  The story is open to a number of interpretations, including one that Orpheus was punished by the gods for not being willing to die in order to be with his love in death, and another that Hades had tricked Orpheus all along and only presented Orpheus with an apparition of Eurydice.  The question for modern audiences would likely center around the lovers’ anxiety and loss of trust.  Marcel Camus’ 1959 film Orfeu Negro combines elements of the myth in the context of the Carnaval in Rio.


       
 

 

For Calzabigi and Gluck, the opera is a test of Orpheus’ love. There is even a character named “Amore” who sets the challenge in motion.  Amore comes upon Orfeo in his grief and offers him the chance to be reunited with his Eurydice.  She requires only that Orfeo conceal his true feelings and his instructions from Euridice, making it a test for the both of them as they emerge from the Underworld. As Eurydice implores him to explain why he does not look at her, she begins to doubt his love for her.  In turn Orfeo suffers.  When he turns just before the last moment, she disappears into the Underworld.  In his torment he threatens to kill himself, inconsolable in his grief and loneliness.  At the critical moment Amore appears and reunites the lovers as a reward for Orfeo’s constancy.  It’s not how we would end the story today, nor how the myth goes either, but you have to give credit to any modern production that remains faithful to the libretto.


       

 

Gluck’s opera is the first of his “reform operas” in which he addressed, quite successfully I would say, the growing excesses he felt in opera seria.  His opera seems through-composed rather than divided into arias and recitatives, and none of the arias bring attention to themselves by way of melismatic extensions. What Gluck wrote is something of an extended Lament, with a couple of notable instrumental interruptions.  His approach to opera was decades ahead of its time - even Mozart wouldn’t or couldn’t embrace it. Berlioz was the first to pick up the gauntlet, especially in Les Troyens, followed to some extent by the bel canto composers, Bellini and Donizetti (it is especially evident in Anna Bolena.)  The commitment to the drama would reach its zenith in Wagner.  The commitment to the drama would reach its zenith in Wagner.

 

For various reasons, Orfeo ed Euridice very quickly saw significant alterations of the music itself in addition to changes in the assigned voice parts.  There was a London version for which J.C. Bach devised some music; and a Paris version, for which Liszt substituted one of his symphonic poems for the overture.  Poor Gluck!  Since the nineteenth century the practice has been for Orfeo to be sung by a contralto or mezzo soprano instead of castrato or counter-tenor – my personal favorite being Marilyn Horne.  In the present version, the three acts are played without interruption, or would be if it weren’t for the re-tuning of the orchestra and the tentative applause of the audience – tentative, only because many realize that applause is not indicated.


       

 

Production

Gluck’s music is so iconic for the style, it may come as something of a shock to find what those enfants terribles of the Valencia RING – La Fura dels Baus – have done with the material.  I don’t recall anything less likely to make sense to a composer yet rivet modern sensibilities.  It all starts with a raked stage onto which walk the musicians – all of them – dressed in camouflaged body tunics – the reasons for both their presence on stage and their disguises soon becomes apparent.  They are the amazing bandArt who perform, as near as I could tell, without a conductor, yet their ensemble is as perfect as their participation in the stage action is surprising.


       

 

Almost the entire opera suffers a front projection that covers the stage and the back wall, which, along with cleverly placed lighting, makes the musicians more or less invisible when required.  At other times, they stand move about and engage the singers – or come as close to engagement as playing will allow.  During the tempestuous Dance of the Furies the string and wind players weave about a kind of altar, upon which stands Orfeo, in pagan choreography that would be suitable for Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.  This is Hell, after all, and this production sees no good reason to pussyfoot about.

 

Now, about that front projection: Between the images, lighting and the orchestra's body tunics, the effect in the first act is decidedly colorless, as befits Orfeo’s feeling that the light of his world has gone out.  Only his face, hands and royal blue costume – adds what little color there is.  The projected images are a complexity of classic architecture, musicians, notes and harp strings, and for much of the first act, the images swirl about vertiginously.  The path into and out of the Underworld is symbolized by a rectangular slab that raises and lowers, which at one point, Orfeo ascends by climbing, and at another descends, seemingly by running down its slope in slow motion.  The chorus is often onstage and takes the parts of Orfeo’s grief as well as the dead.


       

 

Amore appears a bright golden bird, flapping its wings – it’s the one aspect of the staging that I felt was seriously off.  As if to compensate, the video shows what the audience cannot see – or does not see the way we do – Amore’s lovely face, softened and in dim light, nearly always in montage with herself as a bird and just as often with Orfeo. . . which brings me to the most extraordinary aspect of this the presentation: In ways that no other high definition video presentation of live opera has dared (in my experience) I have come across thus far, Tiziano Mancini has created a movie, complete with double and triple exposure montages, fade ins and outs, blurred frames, and avoidance of shots of the audience or the theater.  The camera is almost always moving, at times hand-held.  During the first and second acts especially, the camera seems to be on stage and above it in ways that would be inconceivable if it weren’t for the generally dim lighting and front projection that ingeniously conceals a multitude of sins.


       

 

Performance

Gluck’s choice of solo voices for his opera is unusual: all high voices and feminine types, probably because the opera includes no representative characters from Hades.  The effect over the course of nearly two hours is decidedly ethereal.  Just as interesting, the only voice we hear, outside of the chorus, for the first twenty-five minutes is Orfeo, who assumes the lion’s share of the work as a whole.  Anita Rachvelishvili hails from Tbilisi, Georgia, which, if you aren’t familiar with that part of the world, lies exactly halfway between the Black and Caspian Seas and a short, roughly equidistant drive from the borders of Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia.  Cozy.  Her voice is confident, resonant, earthy. As Orfeo she comes as close to heart-breaking as her body restraints will permit.


       

 

Euridice, dressed in a white gown just asking to be tripped over, doesn’t appear until the end of the second act.  She is sung by Maite Alberola, a voluptuous soprano voice that I thought might overwhelm the already resonant Rachvelishvili, but they worked quite well together, visually and otherwise.  Relative newcomer Spanish soprano Auxiliadora Toledano as Amore not only has the face of an angel but nearly the voice of one as well.  My only wish is that we could see her as clearly as we hear her, but such is the deliberate choice of the director that she be more suggested than corporealized.  The wonderful Cor de Cambra del Palau de la Música Catalana, with their wholesome tone and immaculate diction is often seen onstage as demons and souls, at times garbed as hideous tumors, at others peering through peepholes.


       

 

Video

More than your usual for high definition video, C Major had their work cut out for them for Orfeo ed Euridice.  More accurately, the challenge is not so much theirs but ours in that the front projection, while disguised to a great extent by costume, does make its presence known on faces in close-up and medium shots.  The effect of this is that what would be an otherwise be a razor sharp picture is softened and disturbed somewhat at times. 

 

Another difficulty is presented by the wire that Rachvelishvili attaches to her costume to keep her from breaking her neck lest she fall from her perch.  Front projection makes the wire more visible than it would be if she were seen only be a well-directed spotlight.  The audience can tune it out easier than we who see it in closeup.  Once in while the angle is such that it appears, unintentionally I’m sure, like a noose.  Poor Orfeo.  He’s got enough problems!  Such moments do not persist and can be ignored by telling your brain to be unconcerned. The camera keeps moving for much of the time which helps minimize the effect.


       


Such is the world of high definition video, for it can tell us more than we want to know and certainly more than the audience can see no matter how close one sits.  In a way seeing more detail than the audience sees is always true for opera on Blu-ray, but this production of Orfeo really presses the question to its limits.  That said, the images are relentlessly interesting (the bits with the flying Amore excepted).  As I said earlier, visually this production is hardly what Gluck could have imaged, but it does make a case for Hell that combines classical images with modern techniques.

 

Audio

As is usually the case with opera on Blu-ray, C Major offers both a surround and a stereo mix in uncompressed audio.  The stereo is default, and for good reason.  It is to be preferred.  I suspect even die-hard surroundheads would find it so.  Not that the 5.1 mix is in any wrong or obviously lacking, it’s just that when we access the stereo, it simply blows the surround out of the water.  It is more vivid, with greater dynamic texture and wider frequency range; the voices are clearer, truer and more authoritative.  On its own terms it is about as good as these things get for live opera recordings.


       

 

Recommendation

Without a doubt, Christoph Willibald Gluck is the mid-nineteenth century master of the operatic form, yet his name does not resound with the authority due him.  It was Gluck, not Mozart, who began what developed into the music dramas of Wagner, Richard Strauss, Alban Berg and Benjamin Britten. Wikipedia lists 49 operatic works, and though only a handful continue to find favor through today. And what remarkable works they are: In addition to Orfeo ed Euridice there is also the magnificent Iphigénie en Aulide and Iphigénie en Tauride and the touching Alceste and Armide (none of which have yet to see a recording in high-definition video)If you don’t know these works you owe it to yourself to correct this mistake.

 

This leaves Gluck’s most popular opera, if not his most inventive or masterful (that designation probably belongs to Iphigénie en Aulide). Drop the needle almost anywhere in Orfeo ed Euridice and the music is instantly recognizable, comfortable. Some of it, like the lovely Dance of the Blessed Spirits, not uncommonly excerpted for concert performance, and the arias J’ai perdu mon Eurydice and Che farò senza Euridice are staples of the concert and recital stage.


       

 

In celebration of the 25th anniversary of the small but ambitious Castell de Peralada Festival (150 km north of Barcelona), the Catalan theatre collective La Fura dels Baus and its director Carlus Padrissa offer this astonishing production of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice.  Despite the relative absence of Bonus Features (a two-page essay about the staging for this production and a handful of C Major previews) and my complaints about the staging of the character of Amore and the curious difficulty presented by front projection, this is a well acted, wonderfully sung and played recording and a relentlessly inventive sight to behold. One more word of caution: that marvelous cover shot does not appear anywhere in the opera. All the same: Recommended.


       


Leonard Norwitz

© LensViews

August 12, 2012



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