Friday, 1 August 2014

Gluck - Orfeo ed Euridice (Buxton Festival 2014 - Buxton)

Christoph Willibald Gluck - Orfeo ed Euridice

Buxton Festival, 2014

Stuart Stratford, Stephen Medcalf, Michael Chance, Barbara Bargnesi, Daisy Brown

Buxton Opera House - 25 July 2014

Start with a simple idea. That's always the best way to approach Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice. It doesn't preclude attempting something more elaborate in the style of La Fura dels Baus when the setting demands it, but in a modest theatre the size of the Buxton Opera House it helps if the idea is simple, relevant and respectful of the reformist nature of the work. The subject of Orfeo ed Euridice is however universal and timeless, so it can withstand a little tweaking and Stephen Medcalf's production for the Buxton Festival manages to achieve all that very well, without being over-ambitious.

The idea is indeed a simple enough one. Orpheus is a singer, right? He's famed for his lyrical musicianship, so there's nothing out of the ordinary in him being depicted as a rock-star with adoring fans clamouring around him as he steps off the stage at the start of Buxton's Festival 2014 production of Gluck's opera. The sentiments are the same, the human sense of suffering and bereavement are no different, the pain expressed at the loss of his beloved wife Eurydice no more nor less deeply felt than by anyone else in the same position.

Despite the trappings of the rock-star and his chorus of adoring fans, there's an admirable simplicity, directness and pureness of purpose in the set design that suits the content here. The stage is mainly bare, the only real prop being five block letters of Orpheus' stage backdrop that spell out the name ORFEO. These are lowered onto the stage and used to form the gates to the Underworld that he must pass in order to recover Eurydice, they are moved around to act as obstacles and they are used as needed for platforms and seats for chorus and principals alike.

There doesn't appear to be any deeper subtext here, unless you consider Orpheus's grief and his efforts to defeat death self-absorbed and self-important, which clearly isn't the intention of the work. The use of the letters of his name could be seen as an inner struggle to come to terms with the death of Eurydice, but I wouldn't read that much into it. A little reshuffling is done to form the word AMORE at the end (obviously with some additional letters), which shows that the production knows where the true sentiments lie, but elsewhere there's no attempt to be clever with wordplay or anagrams.

The production remains faithful also to the intent if not the exact literal classical depictions of the creatures of the Underworld. The Furies, blocking Orpheus' way by rolling the bold neon-lit letters into a barrier, wear shabby clothes and are the kind of characters you wouldn't want to run into in a dark alley. They do actually mug Orpheus here, stealing his wallet and belongings, before letting him pass. The inhabitants of Elysium, by way of contrast, are chilled-out beach-bums wearing shorts and bikinis. I wasn't sure smoking would be a fitting activity in such a place, but maybe they were smoking something a little more "recreational". It might explain why they found their game of blind-man's bluff with the grief-stricken Orpheus so hilarious.

The setting and the directorial choices are unconventional then, but work fine and match the tone and the intention of the work. Musically and in terms of the singing however, the production didn't always come together as well as it should. It's always good to have a counter-tenor in the role of Orpheus. In terms of singing voices, I personally prefer the role to be taken by a mezzo-soprano, but there's always a better dynamic when Orpheus is visibly a man and Eurydice a woman. Audibly, it's a different matter, and it seems to be harder to match the right counter-tenor voice with the soprano. Michael Chance sounded a little alarming when he dropped to the lower end of the register in the more dramatic pronouncements, but his high end was strong and ringing. Barbara Bargnesi was a credibly intense Eurydice and sang well, but the two voices just didn't blend all that well.

That said, some of the most affecting moments in the production were the ones shared by Chance and Bargnesi as Orpheus and Eurydice. Their encounter in the Underworld had real impact for its significance, as did the scene where Eurydice fades away again in his arms. Elsewhere however, I just wasn't feeling it. The slow tempo of the musical arrangements might not have helped. Working with the original version of the work, Stuart Stratford played it brooding and moody and not just in the overture. The Dance of the Furies was deliberated and menacing, the Dance of the Divine Spirits somewhat blissed-out. When there wasn't much happening on the set in terms of stage directions, this seemed to create something of a disconnect between the music, the action and the singing.

Aside from personal preferences regarding the pacing and how it related to the action on the stage, the Northern Chamber Orchestra gave a fine performance of Gluck's beautiful score for the 1762 Italian original version of Orfeo ed Euridice. All the dances were included and were lovely to hear. They aren't always deemed necessary for inclusion and can contribute to a slowing down of the drama, particularly when - as here - there's no actual dancing as such. It was left to the Festival Chorus to mill around during such moments shifting letters and they did so reasonably well. They were certainly in fine voice here, as elsewhere throughout the 2014 Buxton Festival programme. Daisy Brown also impressed as a bright omnipresent Amore.