by Sharon Cumberland -
SGN A&E Writer
PACIFIC MUSICWORKS AND
UW SCHOOL OF MUSIC
ORPHÉE ET EURYDICE
CHRISTOPH WILLIBALD GLUCK
EDMUND MEANY THEATER
Seattle opera fans enjoyed an unusual treat this past month when Pacific MusicWorks and the University of Washington School of Music mounted a beautifully realized production of Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice - one of the most compelling and important operas ever written. Orpheus of Greek myth is the legendary musician who attempted to rescue his dead wife, Euridice, from the underworld. On advice from the God of Love he descends into Hades, playing his lyre in an effort to gain the Furies' pity, hoping they will allow Euridice to return to the land of the living.
It's the perfect story for librettists and opera composers because it offers every possible scenario for a musical drama: passion, death, poetry, beautiful music, scary monsters, Furies, and blessed spirits. Who could ask for anything more? Certainly not the sixty composers who took the legend of Orpheus for their subject, making it a genre unto itself in the eighteenth century. Yet of those sixty-plus operas written about Orpheus, only three remain in the repertoire today: Monteverdi's L'Orfeo - written and performed in Italian for the Duke of Mantua in 1607 and the first sung-through opera-as-we-know-it, and Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, written in Italian for the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa and performed in Vienna in 1762. The third Orpheus opera still in the repertoire is Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice, a French-language do-over of the Italian version written for Parisian opera-goers in 1774. Gluck's earlier Italian work was a landmark composition that changed the style of opera from tangled tales of heroism in over-ornamented arias to straightforward musical storytelling. Orfeo ed Euridice was so successful that it influenced every important composer who came after it, from Mozart to Wagner to Bizet. So you may well ask: why did Gluck need a do-over if the Italian version was such a big hit?
The answer is as interesting as the opera: Gluck re-did his masterwork because the leading role of Orfeo was originally written for a castrato, and the French didn't like castratos.
Perhaps you've heard of the castrati - choirboys who were altered in childhood to preserve their treble voices. Scholars aren't sure whether they were actually castrated or if they received childhood vasectomies, but either way, it's not an urban legend. In Italy alone during the eighteenth century there were between two and three thousand boys castrated every year in an effort to create the super-stars of singing who populated cathedral choirs and opera stages. Unfortunately, only two percent of castrated boys made it to rock-star status - the others were left to sing in the chorus, play in orchestras, work as prostitutes, or beg on the streets. One of the most persistent questions among opera lovers is what, exactly, did the castrati sound like? We know that they had alto or soprano voices that were both agile and powerful, and that they were perceived in their day as sexy heroes. Many grew to be unnaturally tall with barrel chests because the hormone that stops growth is triggered by testosterone - which they had very little of, if any at all. Imagine a singer like Renee Fleming or Janet Baker at twice the volume and double the speed, and we might get some sense of what the castrati could do. Some, like the legendary Farinelli, could command three octaves and perform vocal acrobatics that are almost impossible today. (We know this because Farinelli wrote down some of his own cadenzas on his vocal scores.) Gluck's original Orfeo was the castrato Gaetano Guadagni - a very handsome fellow, if his portrait is to be believed, who displays the large body and correspondingly small head that characterizes men whose long bones grow out of proportion to their skulls.
So why did the French dislike these singers, who were lavished with praise everywhere else in the opera world? Perhaps because the French had their own music tradition during this period, that developed simultaneously with Italian opera but which did not make use of castrated choirboys. The French were less interested in spectacular voices and more interested in spectacular theatrics, fantastic costumes, and fabulous display - think of Louis the XIV as the Sun King. The music of Lully and Rameau provided the framework for these over-the-top entertainments, which called upon their own style of hero - the 'haute-contre' tenor - a singer with a very high tenor voice.
We know what this style of voice sounded like because a present-day opera star, Juan Diego Florez, has one. The opera world always has to wait for the right voice to come along to revive parts of the repertoire that haven't been heard for a while, and Florez has become a most welcome proponent of high-and-fast (as well as slow-and-legato) composers, including Rossini as well as French opera of the baroque period. His unusually clear, powerful coloratura tenor has made it possible to imagine what Gluck's original French Orphée, the 'haute-contre' tenor, Joseph Legros, sounded like. Go on Youtube and listen to Florez sing 'J'ai perdu mon Eurydice' to get some sense of the piercing beauty of this style, and the gorgeous music that the audiences at Meany Hall heard in the Pacific MusicWorks production of Orphée et Euridice.
Aaron Sheehan, a Grammy-award winning tenor with beautiful, ringing vocal tones in the haute-contre tradition, brought all the necessary pathos and passion required in the role of Orphée. The more frequently performed Italian version would have given us either a female mezzo-soprano or a counter-tenor - a man singing with a highly developed falsetto - so it was a pleasure to hear the role sung by someone who more nearly approximates the way we imagine the character and his vocal sound. As much as I love the Italian version, Sheehan really conveyed to me why the French preferred his style of heroic voice - high but manly, passionate but commanding. That Sheehan is a tall, good-looking man is a bonus, especially when he descends to the underworld to contend with the Furies - a troupe of dancers who surround him with flames - and the pleadings of Eurydice who refuses to follow her husband out of Hades because he will not look at her - a condition of her rescue required by the God of Love. As Orphée moves through one challenge after another, Sheehan has the stage presence to hold the audience's attention no matter how pitifully Eurydice pulls at him, or what gang of hostile spirits swirl around him.
For me, Amanda Forsythe was a perfect Eurydice - not only in her glowing, richly produced voice but also in her sympathetic acting. I have never been able to relate to this character in the several productions I've seen - she always seems frivolous and selfish. I mean, seriously, if your husband comes all the way down to the underworld and braves a three-headed dog and a gang of Furies to bring you back to life, can't you trust him enough to follow instructions? Why make him turn around and break his vow to the God of Love, which will cause you to die after all? I always thought Eurydice deserved her fate for being such a self-absorbed weakling. But Forsythe changed my apprehension of Eurydice, especially when she asks Orphée why she should want to return to life if the one she loves the most is indifferent to her. The combination of Forsythe's tender, desperate acting and her nuanced voice as she made this argument caused me to see Eurydice's dilemma for the first time. My understanding was greatly helped by the clever staging, in which the translated text framed Stage Director Gilbert Blin's gorgeous projections, bringing the conflict straight to the audience without the distraction of looking up at supertitles. It was almost as though I could understand French.
There were two other heroes in this production, in my opinion - Music Director Stephen Stubbs, and the choreographer, Anna Mansbridge. Director Stubbs has established himself and Pacific MusicWorks as one of the foremost Baroque orchestras in the nation - a fact recognized last year by his Grammy Award. The conducting was very distinctive - a beat so strong that images of Lully and his conducting staff came to mind - supporting the iconic melodies that propel the singers and dancers through the drama. This under-beat made music I've heard a hundred times sound new and anticipatory - as if I'd reached another level in the game and was looking at a new version of an old universe.
I was especially impressed by the collaboration between the UW Music School and PMW - the generous investment of expert musicians in the orchestra of tomorrow. This collaboration extended to the UW chorus and dancers, who were guided by Anna Mansbridge in a particularly effective sequence of movements as nymphs and shepherds, as Furies, and as happy spirits. It often happens in operas, as it did here, that there is a central corps of trained dancers doing the hard steps surrounded by a swaying chorus. But as less often happens in operas, the chorus members were called upon to perform choreographed gestures that intensified and amplified the dance. My favorite example of this strategy was the Dance of the Blessed Spirits - a dozen white-clad spirits slowly walking in an arc with simple, simultaneous arm movements and easy lifts of the heel. It required some coordination to create the effect of individuals in sublime unity, but it was a dance you or I could do if we practiced. When I hear this famous music I always imagine a circle dance, as though the spirits are living in eternal, unending bliss. But the choice of an open, weaving line in perfect unity suggested an inclusiveness and progression I had not thought of before. In another beautiful choreographic moment, Orphée is shown a sequence of human virtues in which quartets of dancers suggest love, nourishment, and attentiveness to the beloved. It was so beautiful I wanted to hug my opera buddy. It was a message that jumped out of the story and into the hearts of the viewers.
Gluck's French Orphée et Eurydice seems to meditate more prominently than its counterpart on the testing of the gods - 'What punishments you mix with your gifts!' Orphée sings at one point - and the rewards of love. In this less common version, with its more recognizable (which is to say, more modern) hero and heroine, we see the psychological problems and the hard-won triumphs of love more clearly.
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