In a way, Christoph Willibald Gluck has been the victim of his own success. He’s routinely paraded as one of the great reformers in the history of opera, a composer who favored music as a vehicle for dramatic truth rather than empty display. Gluck stands for the side that won this battle long ago; the side that paved the way for the operas by Mozart, Wagner, and Verdi that now enjoy central status in the repertory.
But that very success has led to Gluck’s own work being viewed in hindsight as a mere step in an unfolding evolution. This is the 'purist' composer who was caricatured by W.H. Auden’s partner and collaborator, Chester Kallman, as the purveyor of “that Greeky Gluckiness — with side-views of a Grecian urn.” Worse still is the attitude that finds Gluck’s characters so noble and lofty that — to borrow a phrase from Amadeus — “they sound as if they shit marble.”
For all the historical recognition Gluck merits, the very last thing his operas should suggest are museum pieces. Thankfully, Seattle Opera’s current staging of Orphée et Eurydice sweeps away the reverential cobwebs to bring the composer’s setting of the famous myth to life in a vibrant and compelling new production.
The company deserves credit for playing an important part in the Gluck revival that has made its way across North America over the past few years. In 2007 Seattle Opera presented Iphigénie en Tauride (arguably Gluck’s finest masterpiece) as its first ever co-production with the Metropolitan Opera. And bravo to the company for championing the later version of the more-familiar Orfeo ed Euridice, which Gluck introduced to the Paris stage as Orphée et Eurydice in 1774. (Seattle Opera first staged Orphée in 1988.)
The earlier Italian version, originally written for the Habsburg Court in Vienna in 1762, was even more streamlined. Orfeo actually predates the composer’s famous manifesto calling for the reform of operatic convention, which was articulated by his librettist, Ranieri de’ Calzabigi. By the time he came to produce Orphée in Paris, Gluck had been able to further experiment with these ideas, putting theory into practice.
The Italian version also featured a castrato, in the role of the bereaved widower Orpheus. Nowadays the part is usually sung by a countertenor or a woman (alto/mezzo) as a trousers role. Gluck’s rewrite for Paris on the other hand, calls for a very high tenor (a difficult role to cast), introducing more vocal variety in counterpoint with the other two female roles. And the French version includes added material to flesh out the hero’s character and his relationship with his beloved.
As it is, even the longer Orphée et Eurydice essentially takes the form of a chamber opera, featuring just three characters along with chorus and dancers. Gluck further reduces this to monodrama for pivotal scenes of lamentation by Orphée. The role, taken here by tenor William Burden, presents formidable challenges.
Because he renounces the florid fireworks that had become the norm in late-baroque opera, Gluck gives his hero no place to hide. When Orphée sings, he reveals his emotions with searing honesty, naked and direct. Even more, the tenor line’s center of gravity is set punishingly high. Burden, despite moments of evident vocal strain, projects emotional intensity as well as variety.
In an aria just before setting off to find Eurydice in the Underworld, Gluck even allows him to indulge in some well-earned coloratura flourishes. Burden makes it clear this is perfectly in keeping with the context of Orphée’s rebounding hope. His internal journey, even more than the retrieval of Eurydice, becomes the centerpiece of the performance, enlivening the abstract myth with urgent humanity.
In the much briefer role of Eurydice, soprano Davinia Rodríguez not only sings with ravishing lyricism, but brings an edge to the crucial scene of the passage from the Underworld. Her mix of relief, disbelief, anger, and fear as she reacts to the reunion with her husband and his incomprehensible behavior makes the encounter, mostly written as recitative, a dramatic, emotionally realistic highlight.
Former Seattle Opera Young Artist Julianne Gearhart sings the role of Amour, the interventionist god of Love, with saucy, what-fools-these-mortals-be attitude. Making her entrance on a golden bicycle, she provides maximum contrast to the human tragedy that unfolds, sprinkling glitterbombs and dispensing practical advice.
Gluck’s proto-Minimalism presents further challenges for the overall staging and design. Director Jose Maria Condemi knows that the composer’s simplicity is hardly simple-minded, but calls for a subtle balance of stylization and realism. What makes the production so deeply satisfying is the clear sense that emerges of a unified aesthetic vision, shared by his design team and the performers. The myth’s timeless, archetypal character is always anchored in recognizably human emotions.
Phillip Lienau’s set of desolately looming tree limbs, arranged in an anthropomorphic posture of grief in the first act, sprout flowers by the end, painting a nature that’s in sympathy with these emotions.
The geography of the Underworld is especially intriguing. A spidery womb of tangled webs for Hades is succeeded by alluringly pastoral hillocks (with a hint of Teletubbyland surrealism) for the Elysian Fields, where Eurydice passes the time with other gentle spirits. But this pre-French Revolutionary vision of an innocent utopia has a melancholy tinge of its own. In an especially moving touch, just as Orphée is anticipating the restoration of his loss, the overly cheerful skies darken and the dancing couples reenact (or rather, foreshadow) the second death his Eurydice is about to suffer.
Connie Yun’s lighting underlines the visual analogue to Gluck’s style, where major-key tunes convey a deeper, sadder reality. With her imaginatively quirky costumes for Amour and the Furies, Heidi Zamora infuses a dreamlike temperament in contrast to the classical simplicity with which she clothes Orphée and Eurydice.
Reform of the dance was integral to Gluck’s project, and Yannis Adoniou’s choreography plays an important and welcome role in the production. The extended ballet sequences in the Underworld for the Furies and the Blessed Spirits echo the production’s larger dialectic of passion and restraint. The dance during the communal celebration of love in the final chorus, though, seems oddly bland. (Gluck’s lengthy final dance sequence for the Paris production has been cut.)
The chorus, excellently prepared by Beth Kirchhoff, has several major roles to play as well. They start the opera as a gathering of shepherds and nymphs who collectively amplify Orphée’s grief in a haunting, crepuscular funeral scene. Later, they populate the different regions of the Underworld (writhing Furies and gentle zombies), and at the end they return with a reverberant ode to joy.
Gluck’s musical dramaturgy in fact anticipates the path of the 'victory' symphony Beethoven would establish as a paradigm. Conductor Gary Thor Wedow reinforces the production’s sense of a unified, organic vision. His shaping of tempo, accent, and nuance, alternately lyrical and impassioned, shows a deep understanding of how Gluck links musical and dramatic values. The orchestra is reduced but rich in personality, and features solos by flutist Demarre McGill and harpist Valerie Muzzolini Gordon that are winsomely Elysian.
If you go: Seattle Opera’s production of Orpheus and Eurydice runs through March 10 at McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., 206-389-7676.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!