Gluck – Orfeo ed Euridice / ROH 1991 (1)

I wish I could give whoever manages our DVD collection about $5000 and a brain implant, because then we would have some fun as far as acquisitions are concerned. We would, for example, soon have a bright shiny new copy of that other version of this that has Kasarova in the title role. That said, the Orfeo here, Jochen Kowalski, is well worth hearing.   His voice doesn’t have that hooty quality I sometimes dislike in countertenors – it’s intense, expressive, technically very impressive singing. (And it inspired, on the part of one Amazon reviewer, a sentence that is still making me scratch my head: “this opera is all about Orfeo, and Kowolski sings with not a hint of pandering (he is, after all, a countertenor) and with searing intensity.” Are counter-tenors particularly known for not pandering? Is there a countertenor marching song, like the Marine Corps anthem, but instead of the “shores of Tripoli” it’s something about not pandering?)

But the whole pandering and/or Marine Corps question aside – this is not a topic I feel I am prepared to deal with right now – this ROH Orfeo is really not bad at all.  It is the Italian version, not the French one. The sound quality is sometimes fairly abysmal, though, both sort of buzzy and rumbly, and you can hear people moving toward and away from the microphones sometimes.

The concept is that Orfeo is not a Greek musician but rather a modern one, complete with jeans, leather jacket, and guitar. He and his girlfriend Euridice (Gillian Webster) are out at night. She leaves his side for a moment, and soon after that she is dead, surrounded by paramedics, who take her away. Orfeo, distraught, soon wakes up in a mental hospital, and from there he makes his descent into hell to find her – only, of course, to lose her again. At the very end, despite Amor’s news that the gods have decided to reunite the two of them, it appears that Orfeo does kill himself. We see a figure of him on the ground (he is doubled at certain other points in the opera as well) and the ending has Orfeo, Euridice and Amor lined up singing their final scene without any sense that this is a happy reunion in any kind of “alive and well” sense.

The staging is simple, but striking. There is a series of clear reflective walls that slide back and forth and past one another, generating layers of reflections. Some of the action, such as Orfeo’s discovery of Euridice lying dead and the arrival of the paramedics, takes place with one of these walls between the performers and the audience. Layered in there as well are photographs of city scenes, evoking the opera’s modern setting without representing it too much – the only pieces of scenery are a few chairs, a bench, a bed, and a few other simple items of this kind. Orfeo goes chasing after Euridice clutching one of her shoes, her purse, and – a bit less explicably – her wig. I’m not sure what explanation one might offer for the wig. Both the wig and Euridice/Gillian Webster’s hair are darkish brown and chin length, so no great transformation is effected when she loses it. Indeed, when I first noticed Orfeo clutching it, my first thought was that he had found a possum.

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