Friday, 23 May 2014

Gluck - Orfeo ed Euridice (Český Krumlov 2013 - Blu-ray)

Christoph Willibald Gluck - Orfeo ed Euridice

Český Krumlov Castle, 2013

Václav Luks, Ondřej Havelka, Bejun Mehta, Eva Liebau, Regula Mühlemann

Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray

They don't often put on opera in Český Krumlov Castle, which has one of the oldest working Baroque theatres in the world and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The restoration of the theatre was celebrated in 2011 with a performance and subsequent DVD/BD release of Domenico Scarlatti's Dove è Amore è Gelosia. Hardly an important or great work, it was an entertaining opera buffa, more notable for its historical and rarity interest as the first work written to be performed in the original theatre, but it gained considerably from the authentic Baroque presentation in its original setting.

I don't know if Gluck has any historical connection with Český Krumlov castle, but in the 300th year of the composer's birth, it's a fine place to re-examine one of the most important works in the entire opera repertoire in hopefully a more authentic light. With Václav Luks conducting the period Collegium 1704 orchestra, a traditionally-informed stage production lit only by wax candles and countertenor Bejun Mehta as Orpheus, an alto-castrato role more often performed by a mezzo-soprano, this Orfeo ed Euridice is undoubtedly closer to the original than most other productions. There are however a few caveats that can be given about the nature of the film itself.

Primarily, this production of Orfeo ed Euridice is shot as a film rather than a concert, which does take away somewhat from the charm of seeing it performed in a Baroque theatre. It's not filmed in the traditional manner of a live theatre performance, but it is nonetheless clearly a live performance, shot in seven days over a number of takes, with perhaps a small amount of overdubs. That's fine, and it's a good account of the work that matches the stripped-back reformist nature of the work with a reduced period orchestra. The casting is also good with Bejun Mehta's sweet countertenor giving this Orpheus a suitably lyrical quality, Eva Liebau a strong Eurydice and Regula Mühlemann a bright Amore.

This works wonderfully when its performed in Act I on the stage of the Baroque theatre where Orpheus mourns the death of Eurydice who is laid out on a marble catafalque. It's old-style theatre, with painted forests to the wings and a sea at the back with old-fashioned pulley-operated rolling sea effects. Amore too descends in an authentically shaky manner on a mechanical cloud to give Orpheus a chance to bring his beloved back to the land of the living. Unfortunately, once Orpheus descends through the trapdoor to the Underworld, much of the remainder of the performance takes place in the wider setting of the backstage of the theatre and the castle caverns and - other than the Elysium scene - not on the stage at all.

The locations backstage and in the wings are at least well used in this respect, retaining the candlelight illuminations, giving the underworld a suitably eerie and otherworldly appearance. Even here, with wooden beams and stone staircases there are no anachronisms, although you would suspect that the Furies here might be familiar with the "zombie shuffle" choreography of Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' video. There are some clever touches like the play of shadows embracing and holding hands as Orpheus leads Eurydice out of the underworld that don't need to rely on special effects. The idea is nice, playing on the magic of the theatre experience and how it extends beyond the stage and takes on a life of its own, but I did find that the 'film' concept and editing distracted from the power of the work itself.

Musically however, it sounds wonderful, the theatre creating a natural acoustic reverb rather than an amplified sound. It's not the clean, precise HD audio you might be used to, but there's no big orchestra here and neither should there be. There is rather a harder edged gut string pluck and rhythm that isn't quite so smooth, and heard this way it does present the opera in a new light. The original 1762 Vienna edition of the work has however been cut back slightly with most of the ballets shortened or excised entirely. The Act III, Scene 3 dances, for example, are all missing here. I suspect that the decision was made for artistic reasons (Bejun Mehta is credited also as Artistic Advisor here), since they get in the way of the clear narrative flow that is needed more for the film than a stage production, but such cuts aren't unusual.

On Blu-ray, this looks very fine indeed. There's a slightly softer edge to the image on account of it being filmed by candlelight, but it's clear and detailed with lovely tones and textures. The audio mixes are PCM stereo and DTS HD-master Audio 5.0. The mix is bright but there's a pleasant naturalness to the sound. The balance between the voices and the orchestra is different in the two mixes, the surround track seeming to make more use of reverb and give prominence to the voices, while the stereo track is more direct and evenly balanced. There are no extras on the BD25 region-free disc, but the booklet gives some background on how the film was made and the history of the Baroque theatre. There's no synopsis provided, but the plot of Orfeo ed Euridice is simplicity itself. Subtitles are in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish and Korean.