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Reviews

01 Jun 2019

A reverent Gluck double bill by Classical Opera

In staging this Gluck double bill for Classical Opera, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, director John Wilkie took a reverent approach to classical allegory.

Bauci e Philemon and Orfeo: Classical Opera at the Queen Elizabeth Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Gwilym Bowen (Jupiter)

Photo credit: Benjamin Ealovega

 

As a long-time employee of the Hapsburg estate, Gluck was required to devise suitable entertainments for festive occasions. The celebrations for the 1769 wedding of Ferdinand, Duke of Parma (who was the grandson of Louis XV of France), and Maria Amalia, Archduchess of Austria (and sister of Marie Antoinette) were elaborate, extensive and drawn out over several months. Alongside feasts, a tournament, a Chinese fair and a display of new scientific inventions, Gluck contributed an opera-ballet titled Le feste d’Apollo comprising a prologue and three acts on Ovidian tales: Aristeo, Bauci e Filemone, and a revised and shortened version of his 1762 opera, Orfeo ed Euridice.

Kiandra Howarth (Euridice) and Lena Belkina (Orfeo).jpgKiandra Howarth (Euridice) and Lena Belkina (Orfeo). Photo credit: Benjamin Ealovega.

Classical Opera presented semi-stagings of the last two parts of the trio, their performance of the 1769 score of Orfeo being the UK premiere of this version. The pairing offered a good opportunity to hear the development of Gluck’s style, the ‘conventional’ seria sequence of recitative and aria in Bauci e Filemone evolving into a more dramatic interaction of words and music in Orfeo.

Bauci e Filemone tells of two young lovers, the eponymous shepherd and shepherdess, who show great respect and care for the god Jupiter when he appears before them disguised as a pilgrim. In return, the rustic couple are blessed by Jupiter with everlasting life and elevated to the status of demigods. At the same time, he curses their fellow Phrygians who had refused to help him.

Lena Belkina (Philemon) and Rebecca Bottone (Bauci).jpgLena Belkina (Philemon) and Rebecca Bottone (Bauci). Photo credit: Benjamin Ealovega.

It’s a tender pastorale, which Wilkie and his designers, Emily Adamson and Philly Noone, sought to convey by placing a thicket of distressed silver birch trees at the side of Queen Elizabeth Hall stage and illuminating a silhouetted tree on a backdrop swathed in a sequence of strong colours - cerise, ultramarine, indigo. The action unfolded both in front of the orchestra and behind, a raised platform lifting the cast a little higher than the musicians.

The action unfolded gently, though the rather unflattering and indistinctive costumes - all beige smocks and sandals - didn’t immediately assist the ‘story-telling’, the shepherds being less than individualised. But, the music charmed, with some especially vivid and dynamic playing from The Mozartists. Lena Belkina’s Philemon and Rebecca Bottone’s Bauci formed a dulcet-toned and convincing sweet-natured duo in Gluck’s inventive duets, and Bottone confidently tackled Bauci’s stratospheric ascents in ‘Il mio pastor tu sei’, firing out heaven-bound notes that hit their target every time, the tone remaining true and full. Tenor Gwilym Bowen, looking every ounce the golden-haired god once he had cast aside his hessian rags for regal splendour, was a forthright Jupiter, relishing his ‘rage aria’, though the accompanying flickers of light didn’t quite summon a vision of celestial tumult and wrath.

Actors with Belkina.jpgLena Belkina (Orfeo) and Actors. Photo credit: Benjamin Ealovega.

Kiandra Howarth sang her contribution as the Shepherdess assuredly, but had more to do as Euridice in the ensuing Orfeo. For this second part of the evening’s entertainment, Wilkie ‘enhanced’ the ragged glade by wheeling on some cheap portable ladders by which Belkina’s Orfeo, clutching a plastic lyre, would descend to Hades to rescue his beloved. Three actors, who doubled up as stage-hands, offered an array of bodily gestures which served a purpose that remained indiscernible and unfathomable to me. With the action repeated retreating to the rear, it was fortunate that the singers projected with strong characterisation and a persuasive sense of Gluckian style.

Rebecca Bottone (Amor).jpg Rebecca Bottone (Amore). Photo credit: Benjamin Ealovega.

Dressed in a simple Greek tunic, Howarth expressively conveyed Euridice’s suffering. Belkina’s performance grew in intensity, impressively capturing the depth and diversity of Orfeo’s feelings. Bottone was a personable Amor, though she was encumbered with a pair of outsize wings which, along with the sliding stepladders and the flinging of gladioli about the stage, seemed out of keeping with Wilkie’s generally respectful tone. The Chorus added some of the vitality that was missing from the staging, and Ian Page, without undue fussiness, coaxed some fine playing from The Mozartists.

Last year, Classical Opera’s La finta semplice in the same hall had used costume, minimal staging and strong lighting to excellent dramatic effect. In this double bill, it was the music that took centre stage. With such fine singing and playing, perhaps it was a pity that we had not heard Aristeo too, giving us the opportunity to experience the whole of Gluck’s festale. For, Gluck himself was the star of this show.

Claire Seymour

Gluck: Bauci e Filemone and Orfeo

Lina Belkina (mezzo-soprano), Rebecca Bottone (soprano), Kiandra Howarth (soprano), Gwilym Bowen (tenor) Luke Elliott, Nadi Kemp-Sayfi & Dominyka Morkvėnaitė (actors); John Wilkie (director), Ian Page (conductor), Emily Adamson/Philly Noone (design), The Mozartists.

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London; Wednesday 29th May 2019.

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