Mad, not that bad, little danger

ORPHEUS AND EURYDICE

Opera Queensland

Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Thursday October 24

Orpheus

Gluck lovers in this country of a certain vintage will remember with pleasure the Opera Australia version from the early 1990s of this ground-breaking opera that featured David Hobson in the demanding haute-contre hero’s role.   As with most assaults on the composer’s chaste, dramatically spartan works,  the production impressed for its stark setting and focus on the hero, who bears the brunt of the labour in Orpheus and Eurydice.  This recent OQ presentation also exercised both the vocal and physical talents of its counter-tenor, Owen Willetts, who worked through the opera with admirable tenacity and the kind of assurance across the part’s range that typifies a top-drawer Baroque expert.

Not that you can nominate Gluck as representing the Baroque: the whole thrust of his theatrical labour was aimed at repudiating excess in operatic matters.  Rather, the composer’s works from this one forward offer a solid path towards stripped-down classicism.  Which makes the premise behind the company’s collaboration with the Circa ensemble more than a little hard to swallow.   It’s all very well pointing to the brilliant craft that went into the staging of Handel, the exuberance of effects created to stir public interest in 17th century French theatres, the willingness of high-flying European musicians to parade their wares with maximum virtuosity.   But Gluck and his librettist Calzabigi pursued a different, individual aim in which ostentation and distraction were outlawed.

All this is known – or should be known –  by every opera-lover, although, in this country, not so much; thanks to the partialities of the national company, for instance,  you’re more likely to be swamped in the glutinous pleasures of Alcina or Giulio Cesare rather than be purged by the chastening directness of Iphigenia in Tauris or Alceste.   Even though Willetts was constrained to execute some distracting physical exercises, his vocal work compensated for a good deal, right from the character’s initial wrenching plaints of Eurydice! to the opera’s celebratory Trionfi Amore finale.

One of the most pleasing elements of Willetts’ work was an absence of histrionics.  Instead of trying to point up words in the substantial recitatives that stimulate the opera’s progress, the singer kept on an even keel, letting Gluck’s vocal line do the underlining for him.   In his first aria, Chiamo il mio ben cosi, the singer seemed to open the later two verses with a subtle change in dynamic married to a fine clarity of production that hit each note right in the centre.   Later, in the Deh placatevi con me face-off with the Furies and Spectres, you had to be impressed by this counter-tenor’s ability to cut across those vivid choral outbursts and to hold his own through plain emotional constraint – again, with  stalwart determination despite the self-pitying suggestions in the libretto.

After this point, the hero is blessed with two superlative arias in Che puro ciel, here treated with care by both counter-tenor and Dane Lam’s pit which featured musicians from the Queensland Symphony Orchestra; and the work’s most popular excerpt, Che faro senza Euridice?, given without those Mozartian excursions at the end of the final stanza and all the more effective without them,  thanks to the piece’s inbuilt dying fall.  Here also, Willetts impressed for the restraint of his interpretation, one that erred on the side of faintness, which is justified by the text which shows Orpheus giving up the struggle.

For some reason, the company decided to give the opera’s other two principal roles of Amor and Eurydice to one soprano, Natalie Christie Peluso.   I suppose this economy came about because neither role has much work, apart from recitative.  Amor has the happily rustic Gli sguardi trattieni aria that comes near the end of Act 1 and she contributes to the opera’s final trio with chorus.  Eurydice gets more meat to work with in the duet Vieni, appaga il tuo consorte, followed by the pseudo-rage aria Che fiero momento where more than a few of us potential Orpheuses would have left the lady to her own devices rather than trying to bring her back to life.   Peluso gave excellent service in both roles with a clear, carrying soprano at ease with the benign major key Amor contributions and following Willetts in negotiating the late-appearing heroine’s alarm and anger without recourse to dynamic explosions or gimmickry.

Lam led his forces through a score that looks simple enough but is full of surprises; not so much in what physical demands are made on the instrumentalists but more in the need to polish the edges of paired phrases that are asymmetrical, and in giving fresh voice to the many repetitions – mainly of dances – that are an integral part of the Orpheus experience.  No over-prominent woodwind, a pleasantly reliable brass choir and an unflagging string ensemble all supplied a well-rounded reading of the opera.   As did the 16-strong choir which showed few signs of that perennial problem that besets Opera Australia choruses in Melbourne: getting out of sync with the pit.

I’ve enjoyed the work of Circa on their visits to Melbourne, mainly working with Paul Dyer’s Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, although once I took a grand-daughter going through her gymnastic phase to see the company in unadulterated shape at the Victorian Arts Centre’s Playhouse.   With Dyer and his orchestra, Circa simply takes over; the music becomes secondary to the acrobatic/gymnastic display.

Director Yaron Lifschitz put his athletes into the action right from the overture during which a Eurydice clone writhed in a mesh of suspended ropes.  Every dance movement was entrusted to the Circa octet, their movement not necessarily allied to the music accompanying their efforts.

By their nature, the Circa contributions were attention-grabbing, although Lifschitz and his team made a fair effort at integrating both corps, to the extent of having Willetts climb up a set of grouped male backs in mid-aria.   Matters became more than a little confusing when the Circa women wore the same red dress costume as Eurydice/Amor; at one stage, I seem to recall the male acrobats donning dresses, too.   Mind you, comprehension was tight enough towards the night’s end where, in the final bout of recitative, both Amor and Eurydice make individual contributions pretty close together.

Did it work, this attempted fusion?  Well, it did Gluck no harm and it gave this audience plenty to look at and admire in a 90-minute work without much action; perhaps just a bit more than you enjoy in your average Greek tragedy.   At the end, the opening night audience exploded into a standing ovation frenzy; the two middle-aged women sitting next to us whooped and hollered like twelve-year-olds at a Justin Bieber gig.   Certainly, there was a good deal to admire and praise; but I came away unmoved: no catharsis for this soul.

Lifschitz sets the opera in an asylum.  It’s all white walls and stark bed frames.   Orpheus is under restraint at the work’s start; during the final chorus he daubs a message – ‘The Triumph of Love’ – across the back wall using what I think was meant to represent blood.   But, if you make a madman out of Orpheus, it’s difficult to make sense of the work as a dramatic construct.   Not only that: such a conceit gnaws away at the superb lyrical control of the music, even at its most frenetic on the descent into Hades.

Did it make you reconsider the work as a potential commentary on the human condition, specifically insanity?  No: any such enlightenment was lost in the energetic on-stage flurries.  Was it entertaining?   For sure.  But it’s hard to think of any opera that could stand up to such continuous interpolations from an unrelated form of entertainment.  And, no matter what apologetics you try on, forcing a comparison between physical and vocal routines, this production left you/me unsatisfied, faced with the old quandary of many another contemporary take on a classic:  are you eating fish, fowl, or good red herring?

Orpheus and Eurydice will be performed on Tuesday October 29 at 6:30 pm, Thursday October 31 at 6:30 pm, Saturday November 2 at 7:30 pm, Tuesday November 5 at 6:30 pm, Thursday November 7 at 6:30 pm, and on Saturday November 9 at 1:30 pm.