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Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714–1787)
Orphée et Eurydice
Magdalena Kožená (mezzo) – Orphée
Madeline Bender (soprano) – Eurydice
Patricia Petibon (soprano) – Amour
Monteverdi Choir
Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique/John Eliot Gardiner
Robert Wilson (director)
rec. live, Théâtre Musical de Paris – Châtelet, 2000
Region Code: 0, Aspect Ratio 16:9, LPCM Stereo and DTS 5.1 Surround
Experience Classicsonline

This remarkable production will divide opinion. Some authenticists will shrink from its highly stylised, minimalist production values and will find its minimalist stage tiresome. I loved it. 

This DVD captures one half of a remarkable Gluck collaboration between John Eliot Gardiner and iconoclastic American stage designer Robert Wilson (the other half is Alceste, also just released on EMI Classics).  Wilson is famous for productions that feature highly stylised gestures, rigid facial expressions and utterly minimalist sets.  His style is not to everyone’s taste, but I loved it.  It might be overstating the case to compare his style to that of Wieland Wagner, but this production made me think of New Bayreuth many times.  There is virtually no scenery, save a few rocks and a tree for Act 1.  Instead effects are achieved through clever use of lighting, most notably at the moment when Orpheus finally turns to look at Eurydice.  Wilson seems to set the action in a non-specific time and place: the characters wear decidedly plain costumes with no adornments at all and their hairstyles are all very similar.  Gestures and acting are rigid and elaborate.  Wilson’s style is entirely anti-naturalist, but if anything he made me reconnect with the story’s original roots in Greek tragedy.  The characters’ faces seem like masks as they declaim their emotions.  Interestingly, the underworld seems to be the mirror image of the world of humans: the scene and costumes are similar but are brightly lit as opposed to the funereal gloom of the upper world.  Wilson suggests many layers of meaning without ever confronting you with an absolute truth, leaving us to invent our own interpretations.  I was thoroughly convinced, and many of his stage pictures will live for a long time in my memory. 

The vocal performances are all very good, crowned by the magnificent Orpheus of Magdalena Kožená.  She is unrecognisable in a black wig and pale make-up, though this suits her male characterisation.  Her rich, characterful mezzo is perfect for playing this role: her lower tones fit the male role, and she conjures beautifully plangent tones for Orpheus’ great Act 1 aria (Objet de mon amour) and J’ai perdu mon Eurydice flows smoothly.  On the other hand she is thrilling in the heroic aria that ends Act 1, with marvellous coloratura and a fine cadenza to finish.  Perhaps the highlight of her performance is the moment in Act 2 where Orpheus tames the Furies.  She is genuinely seductive in the face of their adamantine refusals, and the braying of the period brass from the orchestra really increases the drama of the scene.  She buys into Wilson’s vision of the story with her acting, and her statuesque performance of the opening scene makes Orpheus’ grief almost tangible.  She is well contrasted with the bright, almost coquettish soprano of Patricia Petibon who has a lighter, brighter voice – and a lighter, brighter costume to match.  Madeline Bender’s Eurydice takes a while to warm up, but once she does so she is a commanding presence and the blend of voices in the Act 3 duets is very fine.  The Monteverdi Choir show themselves to be just as skilled at being an opera chorus as they are at singing Bach. 

Holding it all together is Gardiner himself.  He chooses the French version of the score and he sees it as an exciting, pacy drama, not just a meditation on grief.  The whizz of the overture kicks off an exhilarating account of one of Gluck’s greatest scores, and the ORR responds in kind to Gardiner’s snappy vision.  As someone used to older, less authentic performances I found Gardiner a breath of fresh air, blowing any cobwebs off the score.  He reanimates the music, and ultimately this performance is his triumph. 

The only complaint is that there are no booklet notes at all, so we don’t know anything about the edition of the score Gardiner uses, nothing about the production, and not even a list of chapters. 

Apart from that this is a great success on every level, with the veteran Brian Large ensuring the film direction is every bit as accomplished as the stage action.

Simon Thompson


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