Pros: Mesmerizing performance by Vesselina Kasarova in Gluck's masterpiece. Modern instrument orchestra
Cons: Abstract choreography. Some concepts I'm still figuring out after many viewings
Christoph Wilibald Gluck's 'ORPHÉE ET EURYDICE' from Munich, Germany.
This DVD of a live performance of Glucks 1st reformed opera from the Prinzregenten Theater at the Bavarian State Opera in 2004 is of the Hector Berlioz 1859 French version. The opera on the text of Pierre-Louis Moline was originally written in Italian with a male castrato as Orfeo, then was revised for a tenor. In this French version, the title role is sung by a mezzo-soprano or a contralto.
The story is of the myth of Orpheus (Orphée), the legendary half god/half human creature who could sing and play the harp so well that trees would uproot themselves to follow him and his music around (if the dude ever shows up near my garden I'll just have to shoot him!).
Anyhow, Orphée's wife Eurydice dies from a snake bite, and this opera starts with our primo musician sitting on her tomb mourning. He mourns so lamentably that the god Amour (Cupid) takes pity on him and offers him a deal from Jupiter; Orphée would be allowed to follow his wife into Hades to bring her back under the conditions that he may not look at her before they have crossed the River Styx back to the land of the living and that he may not explain the reason for this behavior to his wife... or Eurydice would be lost to him forever (when was the last time any Greek god ever bestowed blessings without there being a catch or two anyhow?). Orphée accepts and descends into Hades where he tames the furies with his enchanting music and locates Eurydice...
I won't reveal the ending and ruin the suspense. There is a rather silly ballet at the end of the opera that has an alternate ending (a graphic violent scene at the end there... if your kids will be watching).
The music is from the Baroque period, but sounds much more modern. The short and lively overture doesn't sound like the rest of the opera, tho. This opera is Gluck's rebellious against the old tradition of opera being a bunch of virtuoso arias (to show case the singers) connected by mundane recitative (sung speech accompanied by a harpsicord or forte-piano). He wanted the focus to be on the story rather than the singers, and the music to serve as story telling medium. Mission accomplished, this music is flowing with simple yet expressive melodies. All recitatives are accompanied by the orchestra rather than just the harpsicord, setting appropriate mood that leads the story forward very smoothly.
Act I opens with a somber (tho not overly mournful) chorus expressing their sympathy to the devastated Orphée, who then launch into a monologue and practically doesn't stop singing until the end of the 1st scene of the 2nd Act! The main attractions are the bravura aria that ends Act I (actually inserted by Berlioz to show case his favorite singer, the legendary composer/virtuoso mezzo Pauline Viardot-Garcia), and the haunting J'ai perdu mon Eurydice toward the end of the opera (this is a popular recital piece usually heard in the Italian version, Che faro senza Euridice).
Staging by the team of Nigel Lowery & Amir Hosseinpour is minimalistic, modern (Orphee is in a tux), and quite abstract. I love it... even the strange eyebrows-raising humors like the clown-costumed Amour or the jolly hellish kitchen of a Hades (complete with furies as crazy chefs cooking up the chorus members... I hope it wasn't their singing that landed them there!). I think that baby doll Amour teases Orphée with represents the hero's vision of his deceased Eurydice... If you've figured out what the polar bear is doing in the 'Valley of the Blessed', let me know! It is unconventional, but it relates the story well, and the acting is just so convincing.
To me, the Bulgarian mezzo-soprano Vesselina Kasarova owns Orphée! This character's pathos and music fit her to the tee. I thought her a high mezzo or a Falcon soprano before, and then I hear her low opening lines and I stand corrected. Finally! A mezzo with real bottom register (and great extension at the top, too). Her mesmerizing chest notes ooze mystical sensuality (and the tight vibrato accentuates its bubbling hot-honey quality even more). Her ringing top that is clear and free, and her low notes are impressively imposing (it doesn't sound much like the rest of the voice, but when it is this beautiful... I couldn't care less). Her act I ending show piece with the Viardot cadenza at the finish is a real show-stopper. An audio recording of it exists from the Bayerische Staatsoper (Live 1997-2005 CD). Gotta hear it to believe anyone can sing like that. Super fast coloratura with laser sharp accuracy that fits perfectly with the music (you'd be hard pressed to try to outdo this even with a piano!).
See video clips of this at:
This opera is the Orphée's show, and what a show it is with Kasarova. She is on stage all of Act I and most of Act II either doing a solo number or in ensemble. The whole opera is short, but the lead role is very long. And she does a most wonderful float pianissimo (very soft singing that sound disembodied, detached from its singer) on Malheureux, qu'ai-je fait? Et dans quel précipice m'a plonge mon funeste amour?' near the end of the opera that just hovers hauntingly bodilessly above her on the stage!
The Welsh soprano Rosemary Joshua is a splendid Eurydice both vocally and with her acting. Her high notes are a bit thin, but on the whole she is wonderful. Ms Joshua is forging quite a career in Europe specializing in Baroque music (tho she is no slouch as Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier either). Beautiful lyric soprano voice with ringing top and forward placing voice. Excellent chemistry with Kasarova's Orphée and their scenes in the last half of the opera are gems.
The English soprano Deborah York sings the love god L'Amour (a clown-ish one at that) with wonderful light leggero voice that sounds just like a jolly god should sound like, tho the singing itself seems a bit tentative. Her part is quite short in this version since the final trio is cut. (17 May 2008: I have always wondered what the extra lady on the stage at the curtain call was doing there before, but now that I've watched the DVD again more closely...and paying attention to the places where I shouldn't be paying attention to, it seems she might have actually sung L'Amour's part from the orchestra pit while Ms York acts on the stage! If you have the DVD, look in the pit after Orphée's lament and L'Amour is about to stop him from committing suicide. If that gal really sings L'Amour, I wonder why she isn't on the credit at the end!)
Maestro Ivor Bolton keeps things moving at a mostly brisk pace and is attentive to his singers. I like the slow pace of the show's best known aria 'J'ai perdu mon Eurydice'. Slow and revealing of Orphée's anguish but doesn't drag. I'd have enjoyed more contrast between piano and forte in the orchestra in scenes like the opening of Act II when Orphée faces the furies, tho. His Bavarian State Opera Orchestra uses modern instruments (I actually like this opera played with modern instruments rather than with period ones).
The chorus of the Bavarian State Opera is wonderful, too! They both sing and act well, being on stage and involved in the main action much of the time. Their rendition of the ending Le dieu de Paphos is the best I've ever heard.
The entire performance is only a bit over and hour and a half. This is really an ideal DVD to introduce opera to non-fans. The conceptual staging really tells the pathos of the story well, and the acting and singing is simply first rate. Highly recommended with no reservation whatsoever!
No extra on the single DVD. There is a booklet that tells of the operas composition and the many editions from the original version, but no synopsis, libretto or track list.