Orfeo of lights and shades

Posted on May 13, 2011

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Orfeo ed Euridice, Canadian Opera Company, May 11 2011. Tickets & more info HERE.

It’s unusual to start the review with lighting design, but in this case I must. It was, uh, the highlight of the evening. Director Robert Carsen with the light designer Peter Van Praet engineered the stage light as the light of the sky, with sunny days, overcast days, early mornings, mid-days, the waning light before the sunset, and of course the night and its many kinds of shade. It’s a brilliant concept done consistently that turns the basic set (almost no set at all) into a light-moody Balkan landscape. It could be Orpheus’s Greek connection that inspired Carsen to set the opera in a Balkan or at any rate a very Southern European country where women wear black in mourning for the departed family members most of their adult lives, and where funerals are not subdued events by any means.

Toronto critics have been rhapsodizing about the sparseness of the set, but the Orfeo set is always sparse. The question is what kind of sparseness the director will choose, and Carsen’s gravelly treeless Southern landscape works fine. The lighting remains, however, the star of the staging.

Another reason to rejoice was the Handel and Classical specialist Harry Bicket in the pit. The orchestra played Gluck’s music with great serenity and the kind of light that was in perfect accord with the stage lights. A Handel specialist conducting at the COC is a good sign. Maybe we’ll even see Emmanuelle Haim, William Christie, Alan Curtis or Marc Minkowski there in my lifetime. The portents are good.

This is a very lean Orfeo manuscript without the well-known Euridice aria about tranquility of the Otherworld and without the recapitulating ballet at the end, or any ballet at all. (Carsen explains in his Director’s Notes why he chose not to include any dance.) Carsen also removes any signs indicating Orpheus’s vocation and the reasons why he receives favours from the gods (a frequent if not always entirely successful practice is to give Orpheus an instrument to carry around, or something  that will point to his musicianship). In Carsen’s view, that was inessential for the story, so in a way Orfeo is an Everyman in an office suit who’s been given some harsh trials and then granted clemency. You could , I suppose, argue that everybody knows the story of Orfeo so well that the role could be cast as an Everyman and still be properly understood.

An interesting touch was to costume Amore as Orfeo’s double in the first half and as Euridice’s double in the second. Interesting yes, but didn’t add much to the interpretation of the work. Carsen in the Notes psychologizes Amore and sees the character as “Orfeo’s subconscious” and Orfeo and Euridice as a couple with “communications problems.” I don’t know what to make of this Oprah-ization of Orfeo, so I won’t delve. Amore in Orfeo’s masculine garb sets the conditions of Orfeo’s journey, and Amore in Euridice’s dress grants clemency and attends the final wedding.

Isabel Bayrakdarian sang well and acted even better. Having seen her only in one other role, the Queen of  the Night, I thought Amore was fairly low for Ambur Braid but she was just fine hanging in her peculiar though appealing middle register.

Lawrence Zazzo both acted and sang very well, but nothing can change the fact that he is a counter-tenor. (Stellar international career in Baroque opera, by the way; he recently sang Giulio Cesare opposite Natalie Dessay and Jane Archibald in Paris, and check out his memorable Ottone in the McVicar-Jacob Incoronazione on YT) It’s the kind of Fach with the kind of timbre that is an acquired taste, and I will never acquire it. Both the Met Orfeo and ours cast a counter-tenor in this role that is many a mezzo’s calling card. While I was listening and trying to get used that particular kind of male squeal that is the c-t voice, I was trying to fend off the idea that the reason music schools started  cultivating counter-tenors was because people were uncomfortable with a mezzo & soprano or alto & soprano amorous combination.  Even if it sounds much worse, we’ll have men back to singing the castrato roles, damn it!  And even in the country where the same-sex marriage is legal and celebrated, we really can’t cast a mezzo for this Gluck Orfeo’s first visit to Toronto.

The COC chorus were excellent as usual.

The coughing chorus of  the audience was out in full force and did not take a moment’s break. It was an addition that undermined the performance every two minutes from all sides of the auditorium.

Orfeo runs at the COC until May 28. Try to ignore the tactless audience as best you can.

Posted in: Opera