Stagecraft Dominates in Seattle Opera’s Orphée et Eurydice

United StatesUnited States  Gluck, Orphée et Eurydice: Seattle Opera, soloists, Gary Thor Wedow (conductor), Jose Maria Condemi (director), Phillip Lienau (sets), Heidi Zamora (costumes), Connie Yun (lighting), Joyce Degenfelder (hair and makeup design), Yannis Adoniou (choreography), Beth Kirchhoff (chorus master), Philip A. Kelsey and David McDade (musical preparation), McCaw Hall, Seattle, 25 & 29.2.2012 (BJ)

Orphée: William Burden
Amour: Julianne Gearhart
Eurydice: Davinia Rodriguez

Unlike many productions, this visually striking one by Jose Maria Condemi, bringing Gluck’s masterpiece back to Seattle Opera after a 24-year absence, was created entirely by the Seattle company. Phillip Lienau’s sets, dominated in the first and third acts by majestic yet curiously threatening trees, created an aptly awe-inspiring atmosphere. Within this framework, the chorus, seen in silhouette at the opera’s opening, made a stunning picture enhanced by Connie Yun’s restrained and imaginative lighting.

The scene in Hades was even more thrilling to look at. Heidi Zamora had costumed the Furies in outfits that veiled their heads, and their brilliantly dramatic contortions counterpointed the compelling work of a small dance group choreographed by Yannis Adoniou. Less effective was the following scene in the Elysian Fields: I thought it was a mistake to break an essentially ensemble action down into too-personal duets.

Here, also, the melodic grace of Orpheus’s aria “Quel nouveau ciel” made curiously little effect. Indeed, while it was a pleasure to be allowed to listen to the overture, vibrantly conducted by Gary Thor Wedow, without the distraction of invented stage business, there were moments throughout the evening when the orchestral sound (Demarre McGill’s, Ben Hausmann’s, and Valerie Muzzolini Gordon’s beautiful flute, oboe, and harp solos excepted) was too muddy to allow Gluck’s writing its proper degree of luminous transparency. And though the paradox of that immortal aria “J’ai perdu mon Eurydice” is that it expresses the deepest despair through the usually serene major mode, I don’t think its short orchestral introduction needed to be phrased with quite such inspiriting jauntiness.

The contribution of Beth Kirchhoff’s chorus was up to its usual high standard, and much of the solo singing was also excellent. Davinia Rodriguez made a dramatically convincing and vocally resplendent Eurydice, and former Seattle Opera Young Artist Julianne Gearhart’s Amour—providing a touch of light relief by coming on stage by bicycle—played and sang her part with charming conviction.

Now I come to the difficult bit. You will have noticed that I have said nothing yet about William Burden’s performance in the key role of Orpheus. This is a stalwart American tenor, whom I admire enormously, and who has provided superb accounts here in recent years of a wide variety of roles. This time, his acting was as committed and convincing as it always is. But I thought he was in—for him—poor voice, the tone strained and tight almost all evening. Hoping that these problems would be ironed out in the course of the run, I went back to a later performance in the hope of reaching a more positive conclusion. Indeed, in the middle and lower reaches of the range, he was now singing much more beautifully. But the top was still constricted and frankly unbeautiful, so that I cannot consider Orphée among this fine artist’s most successful achievements. (I know recordings can lie, but if you listen to the honeyed elegance of Léopold Simoneau’s top register in the Philips recording conducted by Hans Rosbaud—which was my introduction to the work many years ago—you will surely hear the difference.)

I wonder, too, about one musicological point. “J’ai perdu mon Eurydice” was given, as it usually is, with the extended final measures that were apparently added to the original text at some point in the opera’s history. My attempts to get hold of textual materials that would show exactly who added this passage—Gluck or some second-thinker—having failed, I cannot firmly judge of its origin; but the shorter version of the aria’s conclusion, which you can hear in Agnes Baltsa’s recorded performance of the original Italian text with Riccardo Muti, is certainly purer and surely artistically superior, and makes those almost hysterical flourishes sound like a distinctly un-Gluck-lich addition. I should be most grateful if some better-informed reader could enlighten me on this matter.

Ms. Zamora had seemingly run out of ideas by the time she came to costume the concluding grand choral celebration of the triumph of love. (The opera was given without the final balletic divertissement that Gluck added for Paris.) It made a suitably festive ending for a production that, sensible though it was, missed the magic Roberto de Simone brought to Orfeo ed Euridice—the Italian version—at La Scala, Milan, back in 1989.


Bernard Jacobson


A shorter version of this review appeared in the Seattle Times.