Composer: Christoph Willibald Gluck
Conductor: Antony Hermus
As Stuart Leeks points out in the programme, the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice (Orfeo ed Euridice in the Italian version) is the most frequently used in opera in all centuries from the 17th to the 20th. The first great opera was Monteverdi’s Orfeo which is being splendidly reimagined by Opera North in the same season.
What Gluck and librettist Raniero de’ Calzabigi did to the myth was to re-classicise it. Gluck’s reform operas rationalised the opera seria of Pietro Metastasio, removing the basic recitative-aria format and simplifying the whole thing. What simpler form of the Orpheus myth could you have? Mourning nymphs and shepherds, furies and blessed spirits are all represented by the chorus. The gods disappear, except for Cupid (Amore), as do the guardians of the underworld – no Pluto, no Charon, no Cerberus. In modern performance the entire cast is often female (Amore, Euridice and Orfeo, originally sung by a castrato) and for much of the time the solitary character is Orfeo.
Opera North’s concert performances are famous and take different forms. This is not another Parsifal, with the orchestra ranked up on stage, but on the other hand it is not a score-holding line-‘em-up performance. The stage is allowed a raised central dais, though the only credit is for “concert placing” (Sophie Gilpin) – essentially chorus entries and (limited) movement – but with Orfeo fully costumed and fervently projecting his grief we could often be watching a fully staged production. The dances – of some importance, though less so than the Paris edition a decade later – don’t happen: the Dance of the Blessed Spirits (shorter than the Paris version) is played beautifully before the curtain rises for the second half.
If this sounds confusing, it isn’t. Gluck simplified the Orpheus myth; Opera North simplify his version.
It’s all done with grace and poise. The ever-buoyant Antony Hermus gets fine playing from his orchestra and the chorus make their mark lamenting, confronting, welcoming and (especially) rejoicing – in the 18th century tradition, all ends happily! Daisy Brown charms as Amore and Fflur Wyn (Euridice) shines in the confrontation with Orfeo – “Why won’t you look at me? Don’t you love me?” – the only point in the opera where conflict between characters appears.
As Orfeo Alice Coote, in her first appearance with the company since 2009 (she’s been conquering world stages since then), doesn’t disappoint. She saves the power of her mezzo for telling moments, shades her voice through all the emotions on offer and delivers a “Che faro?” full of restrained agony.
Overall, this Orfeo is a handsome completion of Opera North’s Orpheus season, a total contrast to the Monteverdi reimagining.
Touring until 18th November 2022.