Boston Baroque and conductor Martin Pearlman scored another triumph with their semi-staged original version of Gluck’s revolutionary creation, an opera that, to its detriment, has often been revised for performance.
Orfeo ed Euridice by Christoph Willibald Gluck. Performed by the Boston Baroque. Conducted by Martin Pearlman. At Jordan Hall, Boston, MA, May 5.
By Anthony J. Palmer
With a mellifluous charm that no doubt rivaled the Orpheus in the original 1762 production of Orfeo ed Euridice, Owen Willetts calmed the monsters and demons of Hades, rescued his sweet Euridice, and then lost her through human weakness. This is the simple story based on the Greek myth, though with an audience-pleasing twist. Because the sensibilities of eighteenth-century audiences would have been deeply disturbed to witness such a tragic ending, Amor came to the rescue and through his exercise of romantic authority restored Euridice back to life. The furies, nymphs, and shepherds dance with joy.
Boston Baroque and conductor Martin Pearlman scored another triumph with their semi-staged original version of Gluck’s revolutionary creation, an opera that, to its detriment, has often been revised for performance. For twenty-first-century audiences, tragedy averted via deus ex machina must seem tame and unpretentious. We transport ourselves with difficulty to a different time and place if we want to understand the changes wrought by Gluck and his operatic offspring. What? No da capo arias? No dry recitations? No long and intricate cadenzas by famous virtuoso castrati?
No! Just a simple tale told through extraordinary singing, intensely delivered by Willetts with a flawless voice that is rarely heard on the operatic stage. He brought Orpheus’s anguish to a white-hot fervor with an enveloping urgency. Courtney Huffman as Amor, with her alluring but commanding soprano, assisted him on his journey to the underworld and made the crossing delightfully effective. Appropriately named Amor in the Latin (Eros in Greek—the opera libretto is in Italian), she projected her male demeanor with poise and self-assurance. Her appearance at the end of Act III drew the lovers together with the same authority and power she exercised in persuading Orpheus to chance a trip down to Hades. Euridice finally appears in Act III. Mary Wilson was not up to her previous high level of performance, but her emotional pleading in Raniero Calzabigi’s libretto was as much responsible for her demise as was Orpheus’s weakness. An entreaty from all husbands to their wives if they wish a positive outcome under strict rules of non-disclosure: trust me!
Gianni Di Marco’s choreography and dancers were supple and expressive, adding vibrant, decorative ambiance to each scene they appeared in. Henoch Spinola was strong and agile in his various roles and partnered convincingly with Ruth Bronwen Whitney in their frequent pas de deux. David Gately also deserves praise for his savvy staging on a scenery-less setting. His use of the chorus as both commentator and underworld dwellers was persuasive. The stage was properly divided: the orchestra and chorus in the upper half, the downstage area reserved for all of the action.
Overall, the musical performances were rendered in a satisfying and enjoyable fashion. The choruses’ blend and balance internally and with the orchestra was commendable. Their intonation impeccable, the singers exhibited a mellow and homogeneous vocal quality along with playing their part in the compelling action. The orchestra was not simply accompaniment but was nicely integrated into the entire production. The musicians performed vigorously when necessary, as in the Overture, and tenderly in the lyrical passages. In Act II, Barbara Poeschl-Edrich should be mentioned for playing sweetly and harmoniously the role of Orpheus’ harp in subduing the wrathful nasties (a triple harp in this production, as probably used in the original according to the Boston Baroque program notes). The brass (except for two horns) was absent in Act III but played forcefully in the first two acts. The string orchestra with two horns was highly appropriate in accompanying the tender and lyrical music of Act III.
Pearlman exercised masterly control over the proceedings and should be praised for bringing his musicological expertise to a task that reminded everyone who was familiar with the revised versions of the opera what the real, original Orfeo ed Euridice sounded like.