The English National Opera begins its new season with an ill-conceived production of Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydece, but despite its flaws, this masterpiece of early classical opera is worth seeing.
Gluck wrote the opera originally in 1762 for the alto castrato Gartano Guadgni but also produced a revised French version in 1774 for the haute-contre Joseph Legro. This revision included additional dance movements and structural adjustments to suit French tastes. With a decline in the availability of high tenors capable of singing the leading role in the nineteenth century, Orpheus and Eurydece experienced a period of neglect before Berlioz produced a new arrangement in 1859, with Orpheus this time transposed for a low female voice. He drew on both the 1762 and 1774 versions but used the French libretto and retained many of the additions in the latter including the dances. The ENO has used the 1859 edition for this production with Alice Coote as Orpheus and Wayne McGregor both directing and providing the choreography.
Orpheus is a challenging role to sing even in propitious circumstances, with its demanding tessitura and fiendish arias, but Alice Coote sang through it on the first night while suffering from a viral infection. It proved to be a torrid evening for her and her struggles were all too apparent in the act one aria ‘addio, addio o miei sospiri’ (or what ever words the translator Christopher Cowell had rendered into English). Her voice regained its natural sheen in snatches but never in long enough periods to give elegance to the musical line and the extended passages of coloratura left her sounding a little ragged. Neither was she convincing in the act four aria ‘che faro senza Euridice?’, not quite delivering its pathos and lyrical beauty . Singing beside Alice Coote were Sarah Tynan and Soroya Mafi in the two minor roles. Sarah Tynan was an elegant and charming Eurydice, though her light soprano had a tendency to sound veiled and unclear, while Soroya Mafi, who is part of the young artist program at the ENO, gave a bright performance as Amore.
Vocal mishaps are not to be helped and one can only wish Alice Coote a swift recovery. The half-baked production on the other hand, have few excuses and seems to have succumbed to the ENO’s faddish obsessions with social media culture and younger audiences. Gluck consciously shifted his operas away from the elaborate dramatic and musical structures prevalent in the late baroque period but the choreography here moves in the opposite direction. It is distracting and finicky and more often than not has little sympathy for the opera’s classical sensibilities. In fact, this production is best in the long sections in which Orpheus appears alone on stage. It is also unfortunate that the chorus is banished to the pit and one finds a palpable dramatic absence on the stage.
On another discordant note, Louise Gray’s lycra costumes for the dancers are rather savage on the eyes with their bright colours and sometime phosphorescence. The sets however are wonderfully done. The sparse stage and clinical white walls are entirely fitting for this pared down opera and the intelligent use of projections in acts three and four are surprisingly evocative.
The orchestra, conducted by Harry Bicket, gave an orthodox, if somewhat untidy, rendering of the score. For all the irritations and frustrations of this production, the music is still magnificent and Gluck’s capacity to communicate raw emotion is undimmed.