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Performances

Gluck’s <em>Orfeo ed Euridice</em>, St John’s, Smith Square; London Festival of Baroque 2018
14 May 2018

A chiaroscuro Orfeo from Iestyn Davies and La Nuova Musica

‘I sought to restrict the music to its true purpose of serving to give expression to the poetry and to strengthen the dramatic situations, without interrupting the action or hampering it with unnecessary and superfluous ornamentations. […] I believed further that I should devote my greatest effort to seeking to achieve a noble simplicity; and I have avoided parading difficulties at the expense of clarity.’

Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, St John’s, Smith Square; London Festival of Baroque 2018

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Iestyn Davies

Photo credit: Chris Sorensen

 

I struggle to think of a performance that might embody the spirit and practice of Gluck’s ‘reform’ aesthetic, as expressed in the composer’s 1767 Preface to Alceste, more pertinently and potently than Iestyn Davies’ rendition of ‘Che farò senza Euridice!’, as enjoyed during this performance of Gluck’s 1762 Orfeo ed Euridice at St John’s Smith Square with La Nuova Music - bringing to a close the opening weekend of the London Festival of the Baroque Music 2018 .

Beautifully direct and dignified, in ‘Che farò’ Davies’s powerful, penetrating but also patrician countertenor was imbued with a perfect balance of tonal purity and expressive colour. As from the Underworld Orfeo pleaded with the Heavens for answers to his dilemma - how to live without his beloved - Davies’ unearthly clarity evoked the supernatural and delicate, even while it rang so resonantly. I was reminded of Michael Tippett’s comment when he heard Alfred Deller sing for the first time, in 1944, that ‘felt the centuries roll back’. For there was timelessness and otherworldliness here.

So much depends upon the singer’s ability, in this oddly major-key aria, to elide love and loss, with the simultaneity of poetry, as joy and grief, present miseries and past memories, are inextricably fused and sung. In the Preface to Paride ed Elena (October 1770), responding to criticisms of the aria’s apparent jolly tonality and ambience, Gluck noted that, ‘Just the slightest change in the mode of expression is needed to turn my aria ‘Che farò senza Euridice’ into a dance for marionettes [ un saltarello di burattini]. One note held longer or shorter, a careless increase in tempo or the voice … may ruin a whole scene in a work like this.’ Davies was the epitome of effortless meticulousness.

From the first, the searing cries, plummeting an octave - ‘Euridice!’ - which puncture the opening chorus of mourning were heartrendingly unswerving - packing an emotional hit where it hurts. This voice cried out to be heard, by us and by the Gods. ‘Che puro ciel!’, sung in anticipation of Euridice’s resurrection and arrival, featured beautiful cadential ornamentation and trills, the perfect alliance of technique and expression. In ‘Chiamo il mio ben così’ Davies descended into a chest register with confidence and weight, enormously supplementing his characterisation of the role. And, while in these arias, the sheer beauty of Davies’ sound was entrancing, there was no lack of interest or striking impact in the lengthy recitatives - in fact there was even more engaging modulation of tone and phrase, fluidity of utterance, and naturalness of dramatic presence, as his countertenor rang and rippled with rapture, indignation and despair.

Fortunately, Orfeo’s partners in the drama, Euridice and Amore, were no less tellingly represented. Rebecca Bottone’s Amore was teasingly taut and bright in her initial recitative exchanges with the stuttering, questioning Orfeo, before Amore’s aria expressing faith in the fortitude of fidelity glistened thrillingly. Sophie Bevan sent rich ripples of sound cascading around the nave of St John’s, Smith Square; her shining expressivity warmed us to Euridice’s passion, disbelief and confusion. And, after so much solo singing, it was a delight to hear Davies and Bevan come together to assuage the preceding desolation in duets of delight.

The opera is formed from paradoxes: a musical representation of the love and loss from which opera sprang. And, as the setting sun shone into the shadows of St Johns, Bates ensured that the music spoke of peaks of both pleasure and pain. Characteristically animated, the conductor drew every hue from Gluck’s score - colourful brass and expressive oboe playing in the overture; a wonderfully paced interweaving of soothing harp and seething Furies in Act 2; a dulcet flute solo in the ‘Dance of the Blessed Spirits’ (the one number imported from the 1774 Paris score) which had not a drop of saccharinity; a beautiful airiness at the start of ‘Che puro ciel!’.

The Chorus produced a vibrant sound, by turns relaxed and wrought, warm with bright hopefulness and darkly Hadean; the higher voices seemed to dominate but this was countered by some lovely weightiness in the bass regions of the orchestra, resulting in buoyant, balance and blend.

The final Act 3 ballet sequence was piquantly characterised, the movements forming a compelling summary of discrete, individualised emotions as the pace swept onwards. In fact, Bates probably did not need to work so hard! He doesn’t conduct so much as gesticulate and ‘live’ the music - no bad thing! - but given the quality of responsiveness of his fellow musicians, perhaps not every musical gesture needs such emphatic physical re-enactment. That said, it was a joy to watch Bates’s delightful coaxing of uninhibited, extended thunder-blasts from the St John’s gallery!

If I had one small quibble, it would be to question why an interval was deemed necessary, breaking Act 2 - as Orfeo descended in hopefulness to the Underworld to rescue his beloved - after just 40 minutes.

Gluck’s Alceste Preface has asserted his belief that his opera ‘should achieve the same effect as lively colours and a well-balanced contrast of light and shade on a very correct and well-disposed painting, so animating the figures without altering their contours.’ And, this was indeed a ‘chiaroscuro’ Orfeo in which Bates, La Nuova Musica and the soloists, especially Davies, shone shafts of light which pierced the darkness, leading to the arresting and exultant illumination of the opera’s conclusion.

Claire Seymour

Gluck: Orfeo ed Euridice (Vienna edition, 1762)

Orfeo - Iestyn Davies, Sophie Bevan - Euridice, Amore - Rebecca Bottone; La Nuova Musica - David Bates (director)

St John’s, Smith Square, London; Sunday 13th May 2018

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