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Recordings

Orfeo ed Euridice (Arthaus Musik 108103)
25 Aug 2014

Gluck: Orfeo ed Euridice

This elegant, smartly-paced film turns Gluck’s Orfeo into a Dostoevskian study of a guilt-wracked misanthrope, portrayed by American countertenor Bejun Mehta.

Gluck: Orfeo ed Euridice

A review by John Yohalem

Arthaus Musik [Blu-Ray] 108103

$39.99  Click to buy

The filmis sung, played, danced and staged in a style not inappropriate to the day of the opera’s premiere in 1762 on the stage of the Baroque Theatre of Český Krumlov in the Czech Republic—or in the theater’s wings, stairs and basement, doing service for Orfeo’s journey to the Underworld.

Aside from the soloists, the forces involved are all Czech. Collegium 1704 is an early-instruments ensemble led by Václav Luks. He and the band perform on early instruments, wearing proper uniforms and white wigs. Zdenek Flemming’s sets reproduce eighteenth-century models, using appropriate stage machines: roiling surf, descending clouds, fluttering birds; a formal Italian garden for Elysium, a palatial interior for the conclusion. Andrea Miltnerova’s choreography is of the era. Jana Zborilova’s costumes go rather overboard “Goth” for the chorus of Furies but are otherwise such as Gluck might have seen. The lighting wittily illuminates the action, character and text. The director, Ondřej Havelka, moves swiftly from scene to scene, focusing tightly on his singers (excellent actors all), with gentle ribbing of baroque convention—for instance, having Amor (the charming Regula Mühlemann) file his nails with an arrow, then use it to cut the rope with which Orfeo attempts to hang himself.

Mehta, also credited as “Artistic Advisor,” is the focus of the entire show, even his scruffy beard-style being replicated by most of the male chorus. In the original (Vienna, 1762) version of the opera, which is used here, the piece is almost a monodrama, its simple story unadorned with the subplots, comic relief, showpiece arias of no point to the story that had been the rule in opera hitherto. We focus here almost entirely on Orfeo’s emotions and the deeds that grow out of them. When Amor descends in her flying cloud to coax Orfeo on his quest, he seems stunned, as if he sees nothing, as if this entire “revelation” is internal. The tacked-on happy ending demanded by Empress Maria Theresa delights Eva Liebau’s Euridice, but Orfeo is disgusted and goes off in a sulk to sit by himself in the theater seats, observing. (The happy ending has always seemed bogus to me: Do we really get our loved ones back from death if only we love them enough? I don’t think so. But that’s what is implied.)

It seems to be the theory of Mr. Havelka that the entire story is a hallucination occurring in the head and heart and psyche of an Orpheus wracked with guilt. Apparently (we learn in a “dumb show” flashback) he has murdered Eurydice, who was jealous of his music and attempted to take his lyre. With such perfect musical forces to pass the brief time span (75 minutes), we may ignore the more puzzling subplots thus implied. Apparently Orpheus desires Eurydice’s return not simply for love but to make amends for a deed that drives him mad; when she does return, triumphantly, he departs alone, in disgust. I found this unsettling, but it certainly solves the problem created by the happy ending. The casual viewer, however, may be so won over by the beauty of the film and the score, so delighted with the singing, as to ignore the psychological twists and turns imposed on the plot.

Mehta sings with a bright, lustrous sheen and a prevailing melancholy color that are most attractive, never hooting or forcing beyond his natural and exceptional strength. His torment as Eva Liebau’s Euridice doubts his sincerity is personal and persuasive, and his musicality includes charming ornaments of the da capo of “Che faró senza Euridice.” The ladies have a great deal less to sing but do it lavishly, with sweet voices and elegant line.

John Yohalem


Recording details:

Liebau, Mühlemann, Mehta; Collegium 1704, Luks. A film by Ondřej Havelka, filmed in the Baroque Theatre of Český Krumlov Castle. Arthaus Musik Blu-ray 108 103. 75 mins. In Italian, subtitles in six languages.

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