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.