I had an interesting experience last night, in which I encountered a work of art that affected me viscerally, aesthetically, and intellectually. It was especially powerful because I had not gone in expecting to be so affected.
The opera Orfeo ed Euridice by Gluck is one of those that everyone talks about being so wonderful, but I had never seen nor heard it. I made a feeble attempt yesterday at becoming familiar with it, but downloading it and giving it quick listen on the way up to the Cobb Energy Center (Atlanta Opera’s current home) wasn’t enough.
If anything, that prepared me to be disappointed. I found the piece to be ponderous, just so much early classical dithering. “Pretty.” I knew that these early works (like the works of Handel, Haydn, and Monteverdi) have found favor in the past forty years, but I also knew that it takes a pretty slick director to make them work, usually by layering “meaning” on top of the music. I was sanguine about my prospects for the evening. In fact, I stopped and bought a mini-Moleskine to slip into my jacket so that I could write down my ideas during intermission(s).
The notebook remains unsullied. I was captivated from beginning to end.
The music was beautiful. What was muddy and ponderous in the recording I downloaded was clear and limpid in performance. Part of that is the difference between live and recorded, part was the interpretation. While it rarely moved me or thrilled me the way that Boheme or Elisir d’Amore or Figaro do, it was simple and gorgeous.
(I’ll say right now that Gluck’s much-vaunted “reform” of opera is not just hype. Rather than a succession of florid vocal showpieces, the show was taut and moved right along, clocking in at 85 minutes without intermission.)
The production was designed by John Conklin, originally for the Glimmerglass Opera Festival. You can see photos here (pdf, but worth it). That was the first pleasant surprise: a hyper-competent intelligence guiding the look and feel of the thing. It didn’t overreach into vague postmodern metaphor, it simply provided a good-looking and coherent mise en scène for the action of the opera.
The performers were topnotch. Countertenor David Daniels knocked Orfeo out of the park. Yes, it took a little while to get used to an alto voice coming out of the throat of a man, but it didn’t take long. Katherine Whyte was a beautiful Euridice, and both she and Deanne Meek as Amore were very effective actors. (You may remember my complaint about the soprano in Elisir last time.)
But it was the direction of the piece that bowled me over. Lillian Groag did a phenomenal job of structuring stage pictures to fill the music. The overture was a harvest festival, with all the usual peasant business, ending with a joyous round dance that ended abruptly as the dancers realized with a shock that Euridice had fallen in their midst. That set up the opening number, which is a chorus of mourning. Orfeo’s punctuating cries of “Euridice!” began offstage, a nice touch: rather than a repetitive “woe is me” effect (as the original score suggests), we were led into action as he learns of her death and then comes onstage to confront it.
It was the ending, though, that sent me soaring out into the evening. This version of the story has a happy ending. Yes, I know. After Orfeo cannot resist Euridice’s pitiful pleadings, he turns and embraces her, and she dies a second time. It was actually quite affecting. So he lies down to die himself, but Amore shows up and rewards his corragio by bringing Euridice back to life again.
Happy ending, triumph of love, etc., etc. The chorus streams onto the stage to celebrate. The happy couple are seated, and before them two dancers, dressed in gleaming robes of white and gold, re-enact their story to the final chorus: they’re in love, she dies, he journeys, she awakens, they journey, he turns, she dies again.
The dancer Euridice does not arise again. The dancer Orfeo turns in puzzlement to Amore, but she has turned and is walking upstage. She’s leaving. The real Orfeo leaps to his feet, distressed. The chorus reaches out in dismay to Amore, and on the last note of the opera, she turns to look over her shoulder, her face an enigma. Blackout.
I barely had time to see it coming. What had been a lovely rendering of an 18th-century classic was suddenly wrenched into the 21st century. The original myth, with its themes of love and loss, was suddenly, awfully, terribly restored to its rightful focus, subverting the artificial happy ending of Gluck’s audiences and throwing our humanity into the bright light of mortality. Absolutely wonderful.