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Scene from Orfeo ed Euridice (Photo Credit: Robert Kusel)
14 Mar 2006

HIGH RISK “ORFEO” FROM CHICAGO LYRIC

Producer Robert Carsen, together with his set designer Tobias Hoheisel, is taking a big risk with their new production of Glück’s 1762 version for alto of “Orfeo ed Euridice” at Chicago Lyric Opera.

By stripping down the story to its bare bones, eschewing ballets, later additions and mock Grecian tunics, he takes us to the core of the work within seconds of the curtain rising. But then he has to keep us there: and with just a few sweeps of grey stones, a heaped grave (concealing both entrance and exit to the Underworld) and a lit cyclorama sky for much of the production — enlightened by superb lighting and occasional dramatic torches — that is a tall order. However, he has a trump card in the form of his acting singers. With complete faith in the abilities of David Daniels (Orfeo), Isabel Bayrakdarian (Euridice), and Ofelia Sala (Amor) to plumb depths of pathos with dignity and truth, and to hold the eye unwaveringly, he challenges the Chicago audience to go with him in this very singular and arresting vision of the ancient myth.

Not that the audience has much option — the entire opera lasts some ninety minutes only, but is given without intermission with just brief interludes between the acts. This has been something of a novelty for many in the audience, but they have responded with good manners and fulsome praise — and with virtually full houses both nights this writer attended, obviously the word was out that this was a production not to be missed. And, of course, all got out to their various transports somewhat earlier than normal — a bonus on freezing Lake Michigan nights.

Such intensity of drama and singing, with essentially just two major characters and a deux et machine to motivate the action, requires top class performers and the voice of American countertenor David Daniels in all its voluptuous beauty was the essential ingredient that balanced Carsen’s austere vision and the music’s serene elegance. He is on stage continuously, with but occasional vocal respite — and without doubt this must become one of his great roles. Total physical commitment, total integrity, and a fine vocal line that spun heartache and despair in a way that inspired awe at its consistent beauty and superb intonation. This was a fuller, more intensely lived performance than his earlier concert version at Covent Garden in 2002 and he was complemented by his colleagues throughout.

Bayrakdarian, when she appeared at last from the depths of Hades, in this case literally out from the grave, was a perfect match both vocally and dramatically. She is an elegant figure on stage who more than convinced with her mix of innocent anguish, confusion and despair. Her timbre and tone seemed perfect for this brief, but essential role as she had to quickly establish all the emotions required within minutes. At times in the climactic third act both characters were twisting, turning, almost engaging, then being torn apart again by Orfeo’s panic-driven attempts to abide by his instructions. Ofelia Sala’s Amor was a bright, sparkling, if essentially static, contrast to the more dramatic voices alongside her and her scenes with the despairing lover were memorable as she ably depicted the capricious, boyish Amor who sanguinely orders the night’s action. She is obviously a singer of wide dramatic capability; as her Tytania in the Liceu, Barcelona’s “Midsummer Nights Dream”, (also with Daniels and now on DVD) attests.

With this 1762 version of the opera, Glück was making an early attempt to put the brakes on the traditional indulgent opera forms of his predecessors, and both Carsen and Daniels follow through in every way. They create, and maintain, a steady, if ratcheting-up, dramatic growth. There is no showboating of the famous arias, each of these emerges naturally, on the breath, from within the music and the story and worked well when the audience was prepared to sit quietly and let this seamlessness just happen. One night they did, another they didn’t and burst into spontaneous applause — somewhat to the detriment of the magic.

Baroque expert Harry Bicket’s control of orchestra and chorus was neatly effective, if perhaps a mite less successful in period feel than his previous “Partenope” by Handel here — but nevertheless the Lyric orchestra offered some nice attack and articulation whilst not loitering too much in the plusher sections of the score. Alternating with “Rosenkavalier” at the end of a long season must have been particularly testing for them — how often do we audience give a thought to these hard-working musicians whose professionalism and multi-faceted skills are too easily taken for granted? Together with the excellently schooled Chorus — who had more than a usual amount of acting to get their teeth into in lieu of the more traditional ballet — this orchestra did the production proud, and helped create one of the most innovative, musically superb, and challenging “Orfeo’s” that has been seen in a long time. If only it could make the transition to DVD, and perhaps in a more sympathetic, smaller venue. Are you listening, Liceu? Munich? Glyndebourne? The production continues until March 26th.

© S.C. Loder 2006

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