Gluck: Orphée et Eurydice
Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner
Royal Opera House, 24 September 2015
With the Royal Opera House home team playing away in China, the field was open for a take over by the period instrument brigade. Although the house band of the ROH (and other opera venues) have been getting better at adopting suitable ‘period’ performance techniques in recent years, I have suggested many times over the years that they bring in a specialist orchestra for their ‘early music’ productions. On this occasion there was a more-or-less complete take-over by the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, together with the Hofesh Shechter Company of dancers. The directors were Hofesh Shechter and the ROH’s own John Fulljames, and the conductor was John Eliot Gardiner. This was part of the Royal Opera House’s recent focus on the Orpheus myth that started with their Roundhouse production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo last February (reviewed elsewhere on this site).
Gluck’s reworking of his 1762 Viennese chamber opera Orfeo ed Euridice into the 1774 Parisian Orphée et Eurydice (written in the French tradition of tragédie lyrique) was substantial – and more than double the length of the one-hour long original. The role of Orpheus was changed from an Italian-style castrato to a French-style haute-contre, and lengthy sequences of dances were added, also in the French style. He also recomposed and extended most of music, including the most famous bit: the Dance of the Blessed Spirits that follows the Dance of the Furies as Orpheus first casts his eye on the Elysian Fields. The latter is a setting that, in Gluck’s take on the story, is one that Eurydice seems reluctant to leave. The orchestration was changed to more modern instruments, for example, replacing cornetti and chalumeaux by clarinets and oboes, and three trombones were added.
I soon realised why I had been seated way up in the Gods (somewhere I last visited as a schoolboy) rather than in the usual stalls. It was the best place to experience designer Conor Murphy’s striking set: a structural tour-de-force with the orchestra positioned on a platform across the centre of the stage that was raised and lowered throughout the evening, seemingly to represent where the plot was currently – with the gods, on earth, or in the underworld. The front of the stage was extended over part of the orchestra pit, the rest being available for £10 standing places. The area behind the orchestral platform was either raised above it, or lowered to ‘ground level’ to form one large stage area beneath the orchestral platform. The three singers often had to wind their way through the orchestra to get from one part of the stage to the other. A feature was made of the three trombonists, who were placed on the raised platform above and behind the orchestra, playing from memory. An enormous angled sounding board ensured that the sound filled the large auditorium, and also re-formed into dramatic positions including, at the start of the second half, something akin to an enormous chest of drawers.
There are only three solo roles. Orphée was sung by Juan Diego Flórez, his powerful and expressive voice being impressive, although with a tone that was some way from the expected haute-contre sound. A shame, as that distinctive timbre is fundamental to French opera of the period. Eurydice was sung by Lucy Crowe, on excellent form both as a singer and actor. Acting and singing plaudits also go to Amour (Amanda Forsythe), a sprightly counter to the drama of the two main protagonists, and generally found dangling over the edge of the raised orchestral platform.
This was relatively free from the usual imposition of personal directorial thoughts and fads, although there were a few oddities that seemed to conflict with the story and Gluck’s libretto, one being the curious wire-figure of the dead Eurydice that formed the focus of both the opening laments and the closing scene when it was set alight in a very odd ceremony suggestive of The Wicker Man. Perhaps I missed something, but doesn’t this make nonsense of the whole basis of the story – that Eurydice has returned to the uncomplicated world of the Elysian Fields rather than returning to earth to be cremated. Orphée had earlier tried to set himself alight, something seemingly foretold at the start of the opera when his three attempts at striking a match seemed to be a cue for the orchestra to start.
The Monteverdi Choir aren’t usually to be found on the opera stage, but joined in the acting and dancing fun with some gusto, on top of their major singing role. The musicians of The English Baroque Players were on sparking form, Gluck’s distinctive range of orchestral colours being the more prominent for their use of period instruments – something that seems to have needed explaining in the Royal Opera House programme. John Eliot Gardiner controlled the forces well from his position mid stage, and with his back to much of the action, although he could have done more to control the applause, particularly when arias are supposed to run straight into recitative. One member of the audience had a couple of goes at applauding well before the end of the long final sequence of dances. I just hope that they are the same person that insists on applauding loudly well before the final chord of the music had died away, just to show that they know when the music has finished – but I doubt it.
This was one of the best productions I have seen at the Royal Opera House, both musically and in terms of the direction and staging. If this were a mainstream ROH production, it would stay in the repertoire for years to come, something that may not be easy with these performers. A remarkable blast of publicity had heralded this production, with major national newspaper articles from the two extremes of Gardiner and an ambitious viola player. The former was the expected promotional puff in the guise of ‘insights’, but the latter (Guardian. Gluck: the highs and lows) was a fascinating reflection of the development and rehearsal stages of a work like this. It will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on October 24. And you can see highlights here http://www.roh.org.uk/news/watch-highlights-from-orphee-et-eurydice.