This is a somewhat unusual commercial release of what is widely recognized as one of the greatest of operas. As a work it marked a change in the nature of the genre as I explain in an appendix to this review.
First of all it is important to note that this is not a film of a staged opera production for a public audience. It is a production designed for this film and was specifically made to celebrate the tercentenary of the composer’s birth. There is no audience present even in those scenes filmed in the small ornate Baroque Theatre of Český Krumlov castle in the Czech Republic. The origins of the castle which is a UNESCO World Heritage site date back to 1240. It’s one of the oldest working Baroque theatres in the world, dating from 1680. It still uses the stage equipment and machinery from the 1765-66 renovation.
The filming of the production took place live in different parts of the castle, over several days. Act 1 is performed in the small Baroque theatre with the orchestra seen in period costume. However, as Eurydice descends to Hades much of the remainder takes place in the castle caverns - this is effective when lit by candlelight. Also particularly telling is the use of shadows. The lighting facilitates Euridice’s hand shadows following the contours of Orfeo’s head. This is an eerie, but strangely touching episode, during the agonies and ecstasies of the lover’s ascent from the underworld while Orfeo refuses to look at, or respond, to Euridice’s pleas. She lacks any understanding of the circumstances of Orfeo’s undertaking, and of the assurances he has given, for her return to earthly life and of his overwhelming love.
As the timing will indicate to those that know the opera well, significant cuts have been made. This has been achieved by abbreviating or excluding all of the dance items. This is cause for regret when played with such nuance by the period instruments of the orchestra Collegium 1704.
The role of Orfeo is sung by the American counter-tenor Bejun Mehta. His creamy tone and expressive use of vocal nuance is a notable strength. His influence extends beyond his vocal and acted contribution and is indicated by his additional role as artistic adviser. Dressed simply, and complete with designer stubble, his acting is committed and his vocal articulation, expression and characterization are exemplary. It is a matter of choice with such singers as to whether those strengths compensate for some lack of tonal richness and variety. Contrast performances by mezzo-sopranos such as Anita Rachvelishvili (see DVD review
) or Ewa Podles on CD (see review
). Of the other soloists Eva Liebau sings strongly and acts well as Euridice whilst Regula Mühlemann as Amore, in colourful attire, and after a spectacular entrance, does so as well.
Robert J Farr
Appendix: Gluck and the evolution of opera
Most great composer reach a stage in their creative output when they recognise that what they had created before was a mere staging post in their possibilities. They then aspire to move the particular 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 lead to Rigoletto
when he took giant leaps in dramatic musical complexity and character delineation. 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. The music then moves the drama forward in a stream of dramatic creativity uninterrupted by the style in which he had largely followed the traditional form.
The situation with Gluck was not much different than that with his illustrious successors. He had become frustrated by the static nature of the opera seria
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. It had evolved its own rather static conventions of the day - involving concentration on vocal display at the expense of the drama of the unfolding story.
With his version of Orfeo
, and in subsequent works, Gluck consciously sought to break away from those static conventions of recitative and aria. These tended to focus 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.
In modern times a complication has arisen as Gluck cast a contralto castrato as his Orfeo for the first production in Vienna on 5 October 1762. In fact 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 Paris performance.