Throughout its long, eventful history as an opera, Orpheus and Eurydice has been the object of incessant tinkering. Originated in Florence in 1600 by Jacopo Peri and Giulio Caccini, an unlikely team of rival Medici court composers, the world’s first surviving musical drama was reset as bolder, populist entertainment by Venetian iconoclast Claudio Monteverdi in 1607. Over a century and half later, reacting to the excesses of Italian opera seria, Viennese reformer Christoph Willibald Gluck stripped away layers of heavily gilded ornamentation to produce his Orfeo ed Euridice, instantly rendering Monteverdi’s older, familiar setting stylistically out of date. Premiered in 1762 before a discriminating Hapsburg audience, the classic Greek myth gained fresh momentum. And a happy ending. Enthusiastically endorsed by Gluck’s former music pupil, Marie Antoinette, the composer’s startlingly modern ideas inevitably spread to Paris where the work was staged a decade later. Poet Ranieri de’ Calzabigi’s libretto, originally written in Italian, was translated from German; swirling ballet music added to satisfy French taste; the castrato role of Orpheus reset in the locally preferred haute-contre tenor range. A full century of questionable updates eventually transformed Gluck’s moving, clear-voiced score into a ragged caricature. By the late 1850s, composer Hector Berlioz had heard enough. With a crisp, revised arrangement, a newly respectful Orphée et Eurydice was reborn.
Leaping forward 150 years in time and place, the dynamic Toronto-based early opera producer, Opera Atelier, recalls a doubly dazzling Orpheus and Eurydice, in a gleaming Baroque-informed production tinted with a vibrant 19th century Romantic score. Gluck and Berlioz are both centred squarely in the spotlight, myth, manners and music gorgeously rejoined in a striking montage.
The story of Orpheus and Eurydice is a simple one, straightforward and direct with no winding subplots. Rivers of primal emotion run through intense, compact scenes.
Orpheus, a favourite of the gods, has set aside his magic songs and lyre. His beloved wife, Eurydice, has died. He and a chorus of friends mourn at her tomb. Lashing out in pain, Orpheus curses the cruelty of the deities, crying out to Eurydice in helpless anguish. Amour, god of love, appears. Zeus has taken pity. Orpheus will be allowed to descend into the Underworld. If he is able to captivate Pluto and his savage minions with the power of his singing, Eurydice will be restored to him. There is, however, one condition. Orpheus must not gaze into the eyes of his beloved until the two have re-crossed the River Styx. Accepting the gods’ ruling, his heart lifted in hope, Orpheus departs on his perilous mission.
Arriving at the Gates of Hades, Orpheus encounters a swarm of vicious Furies blocking his path. Their savagery proves no match for the brave singer of enchanted songs. Orpheus is granted entry to the Elysian Fields, a charmed haven where the souls of the departed find peace and rest. A troop of Blessed Spirits guides Eurydice to his side. Averting his eyes, Orpheus leads her away.
Daylight draws ever nearer as Orpheus forges through the hellish darkness, trailing Eurydice behind him. Eurydice is struck by his apparent aloofness. Not once since her rescue has he cast her a loving look. Realizing her deepest pleas for a fleeting show of kindness have no effect on him, Eurydice is cast into immeasurable sorrow. Orpheus battles back his longing and frustration but, as Eurydice is about to slip back into the gloom, he cannot resist clasping her in his arms. Their eyes meet. Eurydice falls dead. Orpheus dissolves into grief. Through his own failure, he has lost his most precious treasure. Suddenly, as he is about to end his life, Amour reappears. In reward for proving that his devotion to love is stronger than the mightiest bonds of death, the gods will restore Eurydice to life and the sureness of Orpheus’ embrace. All earth rejoices at the couple’s blissful reunion.
In his ground-breaking studies of comparative mythology, author Joseph Campbell identifies the story of Orpheus and Eurydice as an archetypal “monomyth”, an over-arching saga with profound human significance. The universal preoccupation with loss and separation is given powerful expression in Gluck’s opera. There are stark impulses at work here. Director Marshall Pynkoski and Choreographer Jeanette Lajeunesse Zingg fill the stage with vivid depictions of crushing sadness and loneliness, fear and inspiration, exultation and release. Movement, gesture, dance, all tell a tale. The men and women of Atelier Ballet soar in countless scenes of sweeping expressiveness.
Feeling in Orpheus and Eurydice is key to meaning and Opera Atelier makes every anguished declaration, however steeped in stylized Baroque tradition, abundantly clear. Designer Gerard Gauci’s trompe l’oeil flats and painted drops bring Gluck’s frenzied azione teatrale into even tighter close-up. A sombre tomb, Hades ablaze in flickering flames, tranquil Elysian Fields, the settings may be formal in deference to period sensibilities but titanic forces of good and evil are never out of sight. Lighting Designer Michelle Ramsay contributes added weight to the struggle, conjuring moody shadows and sizzling lightning bolts, blue skies and sunlight. The scenic panoramas are stunning.
Musically, this visually compelling Orpheus and Eurydice is every bit as sublime. Berlioz lionized Gluck as the penultimate theatrical composer, no slight praise coming from the creator of the monumentally showy, 2-part epic drama, Les Troyens. Unearthing a manuscript copy of Gluck’s nearly forgotten Viennese Orfeo, Berlioz fused the score with the German maestro’s Paris Orphée, meticulously reworking major sections, rewriting recitatives, dividing the entire structure into dramatic sequences tautly arrayed over four acts.
Leading an exquisite 35-player Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, Conductor David Fallis guides his gifted band of period specialists on a journey through the rolling musical landscape so sumptuosly evoked by Berlioz in his gleaming 1859 arrangement. From rich overture to final effervescent ballet, a luscious roundness of tone and golden refinement prevails particularly in evidence in the opera’s several rousing interludes. Flutes and woodwinds are bright. Strings are lustrous, horns triumphant.
Appearing as Orpheus, mezzo-soprano Mireille Lebel wholeheartedly embodies the purposeful hero, vocally and physically focused, bravely confronting the great Berlioz challenge. Rebelling against the extravagant, stratospheric orchestral tunings in vogue in mid 19th century French opera, the composer stubbornly refused to surrender to convention, setting his arrangement for a contralto lead, a voice type sadly on the verge of extinction today. Faced with the reality of transposition, Lebel reaches to the extreme limits of her instrument, extracting a tender poignant sound tinted with tragedy. Her rendition of Orpheus’ exultant, L’amour vient rendre à mon âme (“Hope is reborn in my soul”), complete with filigreed coloratura, rare in a work built largely on accompanied recitative, ends Act I on a thrilling note. Lebel’s cadenza is extraordinary, transitioning from a cappella back to full orchestra with breathtaking precision. Her gentle, understated handling of Gluck’s lovely showstopper, J’ai perdu mon Eurydice (“What shall I do without my Eurydice”), quite rightly commands sustained applause.
Singing Eurydice, soprano Peggy Kriha Dye gives a performance of limitless passion, her voice strong and radiant. Dignified, noble, sensitive, her character’s love for Orpheus is her pole star and Kriha Dye pours her heart and soul into its operatic embodiment. A forceful soloist with sparkling top notes, Kriha Dye submits some of her finest work of the evening in ensemble engagements with Lebel. Her virtuosic turn in Act III, launched by her role in the lovers’ desperate duet, Dieux, soyez-moi favorables! (“Oh, gods, help me!”), followed in quick succession by Eurydice’s plaintive air, Fortune ennemie (“Cruel fate!”), then pivoting to a second duet with Orpheus, is nothing short of remarkable.
Soprano Meghan Lindsay is Amour, Orpheus and Eurydice’s second lively trouser role. Twinkle-eyed, delightfully impish, Lindsay bounces through her book-ended appearances as the opera’s resident deus ex machina, singing with a free, breezy air that belies a rock solid command of technique.
The Tafelmusik Chamber Chorus superbly partners principals, flooding the lavish Elgin Theatre with waves of fluid harmony.
Like a cherished fairytale made more precious with each retelling, Orpheus and Euridice resonates across the centuries. With its enchanted new production, Opera Atelier has brought Gluck’s classic masterwork revoiced by Berlioz home to us.