Some subjects are so immense that the only way to put them onstage is by making them into opera. Gluck‘s Orfeo ed Euridice takes on all the major topics—love, death and art –in a concise 90 minute plot. They don’t get any bigger than this.
Calzabigi’s libretto opens with Orfeo mourning Euridice’s recent death. Amore (Love) appears to him to suggest that he bring his wife back from the underworld: so long as he does not look back while he leads her forth nor explain the reason for his refusal to look. Inevitably Euridice is heart-broken by Orfeo’s refusal, leading him to glance fatally upon her. But Amore accepts this as proof of his/her power, and brings Euridice back a second time, for a celebration of Love Triumphant.
For this tale Director Robert Carsen and Designer Tobias Hoheisel present a world whose very essence reminds us of myth. We see individuals carrying pots of fire in a colourless landscape of ashes. In this grey world only Orfeo cries out in passion, an artist and a lover. The power of beauty is central to the tale, both in Orfeo’s compelling song that calms the savage underworld, and in his inability to resist Euridice’s heart-break.
My favourite moments were Orfeo’s Act II encounter with the Furies and the Blessed Spirits. Carsen’s underworld is breath-takingly simple, largely due to Hoheisel’s stark design. Once again the COC chorus are standouts, not just musically, but also as an ensemble of compelling actors. Credit also belongs to Conductor Harry Bicket and the COC Orchestra, who were all to be commended for their–wait for it– heavenly sweetness. I am looking forward to seeing this again.
I am still trying to decode an interesting approach to Amore from Carsen/Hoheisel. Love is both God and Goddess, changeable and all-powerful in this world. Ambur Braid’s portrayal of Love first appears in an apparently male aspect in the first act, reappearing in a female guise in the last act. I am not sure I understand the rationale; perhaps Love has no gender, or is a shape-shifter able to do anything? I am admittedly fascinated by the question of gender as it has presented itself to me in several operas over the past few weeks.
When we encounter an opera without benefit of visuals—as we might with an audio recording, or if we were blind—some of the voices are ambiguous in their gender coding. We usually assume low voices, particularly basses and baritones, are male, while high voices are female. But some characters are much harder to decode without visuals.
- The Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos and Annio in La Clemenza di Tito are males that are played by women, singing mezzo-soprano: in so-called “trouser roles”. Visuals do not fully repair the confusion caused by the counter-intuitive sound of a high voice portraying a male unless the portrayal is as excellent as those seen recently in Toronto (Mireille Lebel making it especially easy with her six-foot swaggering Annio, Alice Coote also persuasive as the Composer). Needless to say there is great pleasure to be had in that space of ambiguity, whereby we may explore aspects of gender identity.
- Tito’s friend Sesto, like Orfeo, is a male character who was originally written to be sung by a castrato (an extinct vocal species). My first encounter with Orfeo was for a baritone with the music transposed. My first video encounter with this opera starred Janet Baker as Orfeo, although I have since happily met counter-tenor Orfeos.
I have to wonder whether an 18th century audience would be as confused as their modern counterpart at some of the approaches that are used. And so, I believe the origins of the gender flexibility Carsen/Hoheisel bring to the character of Love arise from the stylistic conventions of the 18th century and the indeterminacy arising from different approaches to the score.
The COC production stars counter-tenor Lawrence Zazzo as Orfeo. It’s a phenomenal challenge, given that there are few moments in the opera when he isn’t at the centre of the action. Zazzo offers himself up with complete conviction, singing with wonderful accuracy, his passion carefully balanced with reason. Isabel Bayrakdarian, who begins to sing comparatively late in the opera, is a beautiful Euridice, convincingly barraging Orfeo with her emotion to the point where he does the unthinkable, thereby causing her death.
With Orfeo sharing the stage with Ariadne and Cenerentola, the current season feels very much like a new plateau for the COC. I thought of Alexander Neef & Richard Bradshaw. At this point we can genuinely say that what we’re seeing reflects Neef, almost four years after Bradshaw’s passing in the summer of 2007. Neef was hired in June 2008, assuming his post in the fall of that year. That season (2008-2009) as well as the next (2009-2010) still bear the stamp of those who came before. Only now in the present season (2010-2011) can we say that Neef has really started to show us his true colours.
And what colours. With Aida and Death in Venice in the fall, The Magic Flute and Nixon in China in the winter, a brief interlude in Brooklyn to export Lepage’s take on Stravinsky’s Nightingale, the season closes with the current group. This month has been an exquisite month for opera in Toronto.
We shouldn’t be surprised that Neef surpasses Bradshaw, who was both the COC artistic director & chief conductor. With Johannes Debus to supervise his orchestra & matters musical, Neef is able to concentrate on programming & running the company.
But before we close the book on this season, I’m looking forward to seeing more performances during the month of May. Orfeo shares the stage with excellent productions of La Cenerentola and Ariadne auf Naxos, the most amazing month I’ve ever experienced from the COC.