Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714-1787)
Orfeo ed Euridice - Opera in Three Acts (1762)
Orfeo - Anita Rachvelishvili (alto); Euridice - Maite Alberola (soprano); Amore - Auxiliadora Toledano (soprano)
Palau de la Musica Catalana Chamber Choir
Orquesta bandArt/Gordan Nikolic (violin)
Staged by La Fura dels Baus.
Director: Carlus Padrissa
Costume designer: Aitziber Sanz. Lighting designer: Carles Rigual
rec. live, Castell de Peralada Festival, 2011
Format: NTSC; Picture 16:9, HD. Sound DVD: DTS 5.1, PCM Stereo
Booklet: English, German, French
Subtitles: Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese, Korean

Most great composers reach a stage in their creative output when they recognise that what they had created was a mere staging-post in their possibilities and aspire to move the genre forward. Think Beethoven and his Third Symphony or Rossini as he approached William Tell and then laid down his operatic pen. Verdi, in his long compositional life was to experience two such periods. The first came between the third act of Luisa Miller, along with Stiffelio, and the subsequent Rigoletto when he took giant leaps in dramatic musical complexity and character delineation in his operas. The second came with his penultimate work, Otello, with its move away from the set-pieces of the preceding Aida into a more seamless style with the music moving the drama forward in a stream of dramatic creativity uninterrupted by the norm of style in which he had previously written.
The situation with Gluck was not much different than that with his illustrious successors. He had become frustrated by the static nature of the genre as is well illustrated in the treatment of the Orfeo theme, one of the most durable of operatic themes. It is the basis of Monteverdi’s work of that name which many consider the very first opera worthy of staging. Gluck’s version came over 150 years later. In the meantime the genre of opera had grown massively and evolved its own rather static conventions. 
With his version of Orfeo, and in subsequent works, Gluck consciously sought to break away from those static conventions of recitative and aria, which focused attention on the singers at the expense of the music and drama of the piece. These works became his so-called reform operas. Working closely with his librettist Calzabigi (1714-1795) Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice was created with carefully constructed scenes. It introduced dances and chorus to give ‘the language of the heart, strong passions, interesting situations and constantly varied spectacle’. This instead of the static ‘flowery descriptions, superfluous comparisons and sententious, cold moralising’ of what had gone before. In my view these objectives were magnificently realised in this wonderfully melodic and dramatically taut work. Its structure is such as to have drawn Berlioz and Wagner to make revised editions.
So far so simple. Gluck, however, cast a contralto castrati as his Orfeo for the first production in Vienna on the 5 October 1762. But the age of the castrati, the great primas of Handel’s operas, was drawing to a close. They had not been acceptable in France where a form of high tenor had evolved. For the work’s premiere in Paris in 1774 Gluck re-wrote the role of Orfeo for this high tenor voice. He also, like Verdi and Wagner later, had to provide additional ballet music for the Paris performance. Other performances and recordings, particularly in the past fifteen years or so, have reverted to period instruments. These have also involved the singing of the role of Orfeo by a counter-tenor or falsettist with no use of vibrato by soloists or orchestra. The problem with most counter-tenors is that whilst they are strong at the top of the voice they often lack strength lower down their range. The contralto castrato at the premiere had a range of three octaves. Some female contralto singers such as Ewa Podles, the Orfeo on the Arts CD, have a similar range up to a brilliant top C. Such singers are few and far between. Anita Rachvelishvili in this performance, whilst having rich timbres in her lower voice is not yet of their number.
However, that is to jump ahead somewhat. The first matter is to address the raison d’être for this performance which influences the basis of its unique, even idiosyncratic, character. The performance and staging is by the theatre collective La Fura dels Baus under the direction of Carlus Padrissa and was presented at the 25th Peralada Festival, Spain, 2011. The costumes are modern and accompanied by a very basic set dominated by a large vertical slab. The scenic effects are dominated by a constantly changing series of projections, so many as sometimes to disturb concentration on the music and singing and often barely relevant to the story, or at least so to my eyes. A further idiosyncrasy is the presence of at least some of the orchestra on the stage, often moving about and becoming involved in the action of the story and whilst playing their instruments. They are costumed in what looks like body stockings with black vertical stripes running their length. The stage musicians are at first dominated by the strings and for a few moments I thought them a period band. The strange and fractured acoustic seemed to betray other facts and greater numbers.
Orfeo is dressed in what appears to be a low cut blue trouser suit; so low-cut as to reveal two ample denials of masculinity. Add a long flowing hairstyle more suitable to Carmen and gender confusion could take over. Euridice is dressed in a magnificent white low-cut ball gown with a décolleté that would win, erm, hands down, in any Double D cup competition around! Amor, often appearing and singing whilst suspended and accompanied by a dancer is costumed and coutured in dominant gold. Poor Orfeo has to climb the central pillar even as it extends, albeit that she has a clearly visible harness in support and which comes in handy when she later abseils down. Harnesses abound with all three singers in the final trio (CH.43) swinging about in cradles.
None of the solo singing is inadequate and often better than that. It is not, however, in the style generally associated with Gluck, pre- or post- reform! In a period of operatic performance where minimalist staging is the name of the game, this is the other end of the spectrum. Excessive visual distraction and unidiomatic musical accompaniment leave it in a musical fashion world of its own that may appeal to some non-Gluckian opera lovers. The advertising blurb notes that this is the first Orfeo ed Euridice to appear on Blu-ray. Alternative visual performances of this great work are strictly limited. Despite its over-luxurious orchestration, stick with that under Raymond Leppard and Janet Baker or wait until some enterprising company gets Ewa Podles and a period band together under a conductor immersed in the idiom.
Robert J Farr
An over-fussy visual spectacular that may appeal to some but does no justice to the music.