Opéra de Lyon, 2015
Enrico Onofri, David Marton, Victor von Halem, Christopher Ainslie, Elena Galitskaya
Lyon - 14 March 2015
For a work that was intended to be stripped-back of ornamentation according to Gluck's reformist agenda for opera seria, Orfeo ed Euridice is surprisingly amenable to elaboration and interpretation. Whether it has the full resources of La Fura dels Baus behind it, or Castellucci's reaching out beyond the myth to the reality, what matters most is that a production gives focus and emphasis to the all-important dramatic and emotional core of the work. I'm not sure that it matters then the new Lyon production takes a few liberties with a staging that fully supports Gluck's dramatic intentions, but it's in very unconventional territory in its musical choices and interpretation.
Like Castellucci's Orfeo, the key point to be addressed is the ending, which must be reconsidered if one is to convey the truth of the drama and the myth. The happy ending imposed on Gluck's opera isn't convincing and it actually goes against the intentions of the myth by showing that death isn't the end and that there is a possibility of second chances. What there should be is the possibility of reward and redemption for Orpheus or at least some sense of coming to terms with the bereavement of his beloved Eurydice, but it is only in his art, in his music, that he finds the ability to endure and come out stronger from the experience.
David Marton's production for Lyon, part of their 'Les Jardins Mystérieux' opera festival, attempts to address this issue without invalidating the orginal myth or how it plays out in Gluck's opera. As its starting point, it takes inspiration from Virgil and depicts Orpheus as an aged writer who has never recovered from the death of his wife. The house he was building for them remains unfinished, and sitting at his desk tapping at a typewriter, he pours his loss out into his writing (the text projected on-screen behind him derived from a work by Samuel Beckett), as he is haunted by visions of their wedding, her death and the impossibility of ever being able to recapture what has slipped from his grasp. In his tortured prose, the old man attempts to rewrite his idea of a perfect life as it might have been, but it is doomed to fail.
The production takes the very unusual step then of splitting the role of Orpheus into two - an old Orpheus, a writer, and the younger version of his memory who is seen in flashback. As such, the traditional story is played out in a way that bears little relation to the original. Orpheus's journey to the Underworld is one that is undertaken more in writing than in 'reality', the old writer trying to reclaim what he once almost had, still seeing himself as a young man. The idea of not looking back at Eurydice isn't adhered to then, but it's more a case that Eurydice, ever-youthful in death, recoils when she sees past the young image of Orpheus to the reality of him now as an old man. It's only when the old Orpheus himself dies at the end of this production that he is reunited in the afterlife, young again, with Eurydice, the couple sharing a domestic moment with Love (Amor), depicted here as five children.
It's all a bit confusing at first, but in theory the director's concept is sound, and the production does touch on the beautiful poignancy of the work - even more so with its twist on the ending - without betraying the intent of the original. Musically however, this is not how you might be accustomed to hearing Orfeo ed Euridice. Not only do we have two Orpheuses, but one is a bass and the other a countertenor. Scored for a countertenor or mezzo-soprano, I would never have imagined the role being sung by a bass, and I don't quite know musically how they managed to split the role between the extreme range of male voices, but somehow they do it, and it is surprisingly successful. As hinted above in the description of the drama, the role of Amor is also reworked as a small chorus of five boys. This is all very unusual and it can be initially very confusing.
These aren't the only musical liberties taken with the work for the sake of this twist in the dramatic presentation. The music is also slightly 'adapted', and it takes a little while to get used to the unfamiliar interpretation. In one scene, for example, a radio broadcast listened to by the old Orpheus plays a musical response in interplay with the orchestra in the pit. Is this just being clever, or is there a valid reason for it? It may be that memories are stirred by the music on the radio, sparking off a sequence that lies somewhere between memory and imagination - the Elysian fields scene and Dance of the Blessed Spirits, for example, taking the form of a wedding reception. There are likewise a few pauses in order to let some dramatic scene play out or for Orpheus to hammer some more on his typewriter, which is not entirely satisfactory either, breaking up the flow and rhythm of the piece.
On the other hand, Enrico Onofri's interpretation and the actual playing of the orchestra is just beautiful, the opera played with all the dances included, the work allowed to breathe freely in those heavenly melodies, some of the greatest music ever written. There's no rigid Baroque playing here, the music is allowed to be dramatically expressive, putting the solo clarinet player on-stage for relevant Orphic musical expression, and the chorus are just extraordinarily good, lifting those moments of intense dramatic feeling. Consideration in the conducting was given towards the lighter voices of Christopher Ainsley's countertenor and Elena Galitskaya's Eurydice, allowing the beauty of the voices to carry. Victor von Halem's resonant, lyrical Wagnerian bass needed no assistance, and it was simply amazing to hear Orpheus sung in this register.
As slightly troubling as it might have been to hear such sacrosanct material played around with in this way, and as confusing as it might have been dramatically, this was a brave gamble by Enrico Onofri, David Marton and the Opéra de Lyon. I'm not sure that the Lyon audience knew entirely what to make of it all. Victor von Halem rightly received the loudest applause for a touching and beautifully sung performance, even if it wasn't entirely what Gluck had in mind. The contribution of the production team on the other hand wasn't entirely appreciated by a small section of the audience, however it should have been clear that if the worked touched as deeply as it did, establishing the right tone as a contemplative Orfeo ed Euridice, a sad one but never sentimental, it's because of and not despite those unconventional production choices in the music and the staging.
Links: Opéra de Lyon