Tuesday 22 July 2014

Gluck - Orphée et Eurydice (La Monnaie-De Munt, 2014 - Webcast)

Christoph Willibald Gluck - Orphée et Eurydice

La Monnaie-De Munt, 2014

Hervé Niquet, Romeo Castellucci, Stéphanie d'Oustrac, Sabine Devieilhe, Fanny Dupont

La Monnaie, Internet Streaming - June 2014

Orphée et Eurydice has the distinction not only of being one of the purest and most pared-back expressions of Gluck's reformist agenda, reducing extravagant ornamentation and bringing opera back to its strength as a dramatic artform, but it's exquisitely beautiful in its simplicity.  The intent of the work is carried principally through the expression of one singer and the music itself. And, even though it has an ancient mythological subject, Orphée et Eurydice is not some lofty expression of sentiments detached from everyday life, but it has something real and meaningful to communicate to its audience. To its credit, I've never seen a performance of the work - in any of its many forms - that was anything but deeply heartfelt and humanistic in its outlook, but Romeo Castellucci's extraordinary 2014 production for La Monnaie touches deeply on the themes in the work in a way that takes it to an entirely new level.

Dealing with gods, demigods and supernatural events, it's easy to forget that there is a real human element to grand mythological subjects. They are only myths because they speak for all of our suffering, our struggles to exist, live, find love and happiness. Using the story of Orpheus, who in his overwhelming grief for the death of his wife Eurydice travels to the Underworld to retrieve her, Gluck recognises that the Orpheus myth is all about love, loss and bereavement. Despite the beauty of the sentiment and the sincerity of his intentions, it of course proves impossible for Orpheus to bring his loved one back to life (notwithstanding the reworked happy ending in the opera version). Those sentiments can work perfectly well in the concise and expressive beauty of Gluck's score alone, but the dramatic expression on the stage is also a vital part of opera, and Castellucci finds an innovative way to reconnect the myth with the reality.

Like mythology, opera too must not be lofty and detached, but should be relatable on a human level. Having carried out extensive research into 'locked-in syndrome' Castellucci literally takes the opera beyond the stage of La Monnaie and out into the world, the production being broadcast live directly to a medical ward 14km outside Brussels where a young Belgian woman called Els lies in bed, completely paralysed. She's effectively dead to the world, beyond the reach of her husband and loved-ones, unable to move or communicate other than through the blinking of her eyes that allow her to painstakingly form words and sentences one letter at a time. At the same time as the music of Orpheus reaches out to her in her condition, Gluck's music reaches out to express Els/Eurydice's condition to the audience and give us some indication of how her family must feel about their loss.

How this is achieved in the production is, like Gluck's music, outwardly simple, but in reality very precise and sophisticated technical measures are used to present art as an expression of deeper truths. For almost the entirety of the performance, Stéphanie d'Oustrac sings the role of Orpheus on a dark bare stage with only a pseudo-microphone in front of her. To the right of the stage is what looks like a life-support system, although it has lights showing music volume-control levels, so it could represent a transmitter of sorts. While Orpheus sings of his loss, the captions on the screen behind the singer show English captions that have nothing to do with the libretto, but rather tell the story of Els, a 28 year-old woman who has been in a pseudocoma for the last 18 months, suffering complete paralysis but retaining full cognitive abilities after brainstem damage caused by a thrombosis. The audience are advised that the opera is being broadcast live to her at this moment.

There's evidently no direct correlation between the story of Els and the Orpheus myth, but the broad sense of losing a person, of them being present but beyond reach and unable to interact with the world outside is identical to how Orpheus, despite every effort to reach Eurydice, is unable to bring her back to life. The descent to the Underworld is in some respect mirrored in the blurred black-and-white footage on the screen that shows a journey towards the medical centre where this real-life Eurydice lies, arriving there as Orpheus finds Eurydice among the spirits of Elysium ("Cet asile aimable et tranquille"). As the on-stage Eurydice (Sabine Devieilhe) appears behind the mesh screen, we meet Els, lying in her bed, blinking but unmoving, a pair of headphones relaying the song of Orpheus direct from the opera house of La Monnaie.

Castellucci's direction is simple but daring and completely in touch with what the work is all about - human grief, battling against outrageous fortune - and relating it back to ordinary people who suffer terribly from everyday trials. Although there's nothing abstract about Gluck's music, it takes the drama away from mere theatricality to show how it fully explores and expresses these vital aspects of the human condition. Castellucci even takes into consideration the happy ending that Gluck was obliged to provide for the stage, showing an Eurydice revived and alive, but - reflecting Els' condition - remaining behind a veil, unable to fully return to the world. This works for the audience and for the intent of Gluck's music drama, making the story vividly real and deeply moving, but Castellucci's production goes beyond even this, telling us something about the power of music and opera to touch on aspects of our lives that other arts cannot reach.

One person who recognised the power of the work and who was instrumental in keeping this Baroque work alive through the 19th century and beyond, was Hector Berlioz. The French version is understandably more popular in French-speaking countries than Gluck's original Italian version, and if Berlioz's 1859 version is not the most "authentic" edition (Gluck wrote a "definitive" French version himself as well as the original Italian and even a German-language version), it at least brings together the best elements of Gluck's variations while retaining the purity of its expression. I have a particular fondness for the Berlioz version myself and this is a superb performance of the work conducted at La Monnaie by Hervé Niquet. It's played slightly faster than usual, the overture in particular a little rushed when it should be a more brooding, but the tone and expression of the work is all there.

It's also there in the singing, which is just as vital in a work with only three individual roles. The singing here is just outstanding, Stéphanie d'Oustrac one of the best mezzo-soprano singers I've heard singing Orpheus, and you could hardly expect to find a brighter or more colourful voice for Eurydice than Sabine Devieilhe, who continues to impress. Also worth mentioning are Fanny Dupont's sensitive and delicate Amour and the powerful work of the Chorus that also serves to establish that otherworldly character of Orphée et Eurydice. It's no coincidence that the Orpheus myth was frequently chosen as the subject for the very first works of opera almost 400 years ago, exploring as it does the power of music to take us to those kind of unreachable places. That myth found its purest expression in Gluck's opera, and Romeo Castellucci's remarkable production of it is one of the finest expressions of opera as both art and life.

Links: La Monnaie - De Munt, RTBF Musiq3