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.

22 thoughts on “Orfeo of lights and shades

  1. I like counter-tenors’ voices when they are singing alone (records, recitals), but I was surprised to find thoses voices disturbing on scene and I couldn’t believe, last year, in Jaroussky’s Nerone in L’Incoronazione di Poppea .

    It’s seems that a new trend is to cast “gender-correct” artists in baroque operas like in Giulio Ceasare directed by W. Christie with Bartolli as Cleopatra, Andreas Scholl as G. Cesare, Jaroussky as Sesto and two other counter-tenors for two other parts. (Luckyly, I went for an additional concert and Sesto’s part went to Anna Bonnitatibus : Much much better for my taste)

  2. Absolutely, I noticed that too. In fact, I had to think hard to remember more than one recent Cesare production with an alto Cesare. There’s the classic McVicar with Sarah Connolly, and MN Lemieux sang it a few times in the last five years.

    I know Mijanovic and Prina have sung it before, but I can’t find any recent records of them in that role.

  3. Or it’s a vicious circle : when baroque opera came back on the scenes, there weren’t a lot of counter-tenors (with always the question : what is the real voice of a castrato ?) so we entered a time of “white shirts” bliss with the mezzos and altos cast for these parts. Now that there is a strong demand for baroque opera (at least in Europe), conservatoires and others music schools open cursus for counter-tenors.

    Look for the documentary “Baroque Académie” where W. Christie try to find the baroque singers of tomorrow. I don’t remember if it was a young man from Poland or Romania (or 2 young singers from both countries) who had counter-tenors voices but no teachers in their national schools)

    Part 1/10 : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SdLSH6L6VJc

  4. Great link, thanks–look forward to seeing the whole thing. I don’t think that altos are cultivated in East Europe either. A fellow opera blogger from Serbia who’s a Marijana Mijanovic fan once asked her on Facebook when she’ll sing in her home country, and MM very politely told her that “there is no interest in my home country for the kind of music I can sing.” Blunt, but true. I did my BA in Belgrade and I remember Early Music Societies cropping up, but no institutional takeover anywhere. Don’t know if currently Zagreb or Ljubljana are doing much better.

    But there are EM festivals in Poland and Czech Republic now, and some East-born singers like Kasarova and Kožená are singing Baroque, and the wheels are in motion, at last.

    The rest of the world I suppose is also catching up in the early music and Baroque department. North America also slightly behind, but we’re getting there in smaller and medium-size companies, while the large institutions probably could open up a little more.

  5. The coughing claque must’ve hitch-hiked up the Thruway, because they were in full attendance at Monday’s Walküre, too.

    I think the reason music schools started cultivating counter-tenors is because they finally figured out how to teach them to sing at opera-house volume. It is an interesting question, though, as to who gets hired. I love counter-tenors, but I’d rather have a good mezzo in a role than a mediocre counter-tenor any day (and there are increasing numbers of these, it seems).

    oh, and yay Harry Bicket.

  6. Nah, coughing is soooo last century at the Millionplex. They have the hyper-audible plastic wrapped munchies, and the big slurpy drinks with lots of ice, and the continuous explosions from the surrounding theaters. Terminal lung ailments don’t stand a chance.

    These hackers were in the House. During Wotan’s big Act 2 monologue. Really, he might as well have been reading a letter from Giorgio Germont, because that’s clearly where the audience was at.

  7. hihi, it was quite fun reading your irks of coughers and counter-tenors. Actually i saw Zazzo once on youtube singing pergolesi stabat mater and thought it was a very good performance. But like Styx, my first reaction to a counter-tenor (many rather, yikes) here in Boston was “eeeks”. In the end though, there was at least one good one amongst the three Boston Baroque tossed at me. You’ll get another chance at this counter-tenor ;-).

    I’m still having a very hard time adjusting to the image of a male Orfeo. It would be quite sad if the trend is as Styx said: now that Baroque operas are more popular, more counter-tenors are produced from various factories and potentially putting a serious dent on the mezzo bloom. what would that do to me, yikes!!

  8. I’m glad you were touched by at least one. I’m still looking for the c-t to knock my socks off. I liked what Andreas Scholl had to say about Purcell (hat tip to Stray, who first alerted me to that Beeb radio show), but would I care for his singing, I am not entirely sure. Now I find out there’s even an Andreas Scholl Society. To each their own, I guess.

    [edited to add]

    Now that I think about this, tenors also tend to irritate me. Of male voices, I love the baritone and the bass and anything in-between. But the spoilt, overpampered tenors get on my nerves. They also, due to their scarcity, probably command highest fees of all singers, probably higher than even the soprano stars. I am going by my own speculations here, have no evidence apart from the tenor mania from the early nineties with the Three Tenors.

  9. I have mixed feelings about Scholl — great for Bach, but he tends to sing Handel like Bach, too, which I suspect is a result of his choirboy background. On the other hand, he was actually really good in Rodelinda a few years back.

    Otherwise, I submit for your consideration David Daniels c. 1997, and particularly his first Handel Arias album. If that doesn’t make the case, there is not a case to be made.

  10. I saw Daniels in Sellars’s Glyndebourne Theodora on video! He was impressive and I was distinctly un-irritated, I do remember that. But he is overshadowed by Lorraine Hunt, Dawn Upshaw and Sellars’s Konzept in my memory.

    edited to add

    Just watched Met in HD 11/12 video, and I think he’s in the coming Rodelinda as well. I think they cast all men in the male roles for that one, by the sound of the names.
    Nice to see that the Christie Enchanted Island will be broadcast, though.

  11. I’m more or less on side with you in the mezzo vs. counter-tenor debate. I must say though that Zazzo in Orfeo was for me, the most satisfying performance of a c-t in a male role I’ve experienced. I felt for once, the c-t in question was convincing as a man, and most importantly, was persuasive vocally. His voice projected well throughout his range, was warm-sounding and expressive. BUT in general, I prefer the sound of a mezzo or contralto in this, or most other roles in baroque and classical opera which are increasingly being cast by gender with c-t’s. The worst case of this for me has been Toronto’s Opera Atelier which keeps bringing back Michael Maniaci, male soprano (to me he sounds just like a c-t, can’t tell the diff!). The company promotes him as “much more convincing” in roles such as Idamante and Sesto, but I really don’t find him so either vocally or dramatically. There must be a number of p-o’d mezzos out there who should be singing these roles!

  12. Absolutely! I can’t understand why Opera Atelier doggedly keeps mezzos from these roles. They cast Michael Maniaci as Nero in L’Incoronazione a couple of years ago, and they really made an effort to order their genders like a prissy schoolmaster. (Maybe their slogan should be: “Baroque — as your WASP grandparents from Wawa would like to see it!”) They also had Maniaci as Idamante in 2008.

    Somebody there apparently likes Michael Maniaci very much, and dislikes women singing to and with other women.

  13. Yes, funny you should mention the L’incoronazione. That was the first and only opera I ever walked out of after the first act in my entire 25 years of opera-going! I just couldn’t buy him as Emperor at all. My beef with all this casting of c-t’s is this: we really can’t know what castrati sounded like in these roles, but from what one reads, they possessed incredibly expressive and virtuosic instruments. I’m not saying all c-t’s can’t approach these heights, but I’m usually left wanting when I hear a c-t sing a role that a mezzo could usually sing with greater tonal warmth, vocal and dynamic range. I’m really hoping Atelier gets off the Maniaci bandwagon and I’ll start attending their performances again. La Clemenza di Tito is one of my favourite operas, and I just couldn’t bear the thought of listening to him as Sesto in their recent run. By all accounts, the other singers were great…

  14. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.

    Have favourite La Clemenza recordings or live perfs? My repère is still von Otter as Idamante, but I am in search of some new favourite Idamantes and La Clemenza stagings in the current generation.

  15. I have the von Otter recording of Idomemeo which is great – but so are the versions with Lieberson (EMI), and especially Bartoli (with Levine conducting). As for Clemenza – von Otter as Sesto of course, and the Hogwood recording with Bartoli. I also have the Harmonia Mundi version with Fink as Sesto, and she’s a really great mezzo! I’m not big into DVDs of opera – prefer to get it live when I can – but the Ponnelle film version of Clemenza is fun in a camped-up sort of way with Troyanos as Sesto (great!), and I hear, though haven’t seen, that a much more recent version from the Paris Opera with Susan Graham as Sesto is a really wonderful performance.

  16. I wonder what Bartoli-Idamante sounds like, with her rapid fire cords and breathy excitability! And she’s so curvy and feminine, I wonder what they had her wear. Must look it up. And I keep hearing about Bernarda Fink from many sides.

    (I can’t get behind opera on film, myself, what with all that lip-synching and bad acting — unless it’s Ponnelle’s Barbiere or Cosi or anything Ponnelle, really — but I love opera on DVD.)

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