Monday, May 14, 2012

"Orfeo ed Euridice" at the Israeli Opera, Tel Aviv

Christoph Willibald Gluck

Christoph Willibald Gluck’s (1714-1787) three-act opera “Orfeo ed Euridice” to a libretto by Ranieri de’ Calzabigi, first presented in Vienna in 1762, was revolutionary in its approach. Classified as an “azione teatrale” – an opera on a mythological subject – it represents Gluck’s aim to return opera to a more straightforward style and to free it from becoming a string of da capo arias and acrobatic vocal display; Gluck wished “to confine music to its proper function of serving the poetry and expressing the situations of the plot”. Premiered twelve years later in Paris, it needed a reworking in order to fit in with French taste; for this purpose, the librettist Pierre-Louis Moline both translated- and expanded on Calzabigi’s text. As to other changes, the French opera public had no liking for the countertenor voice (and personality), so Orfeo was to be sung by a tenor and, of course, being in Paris, there had to be more ballet. In his pre-performance talk, Michael Ajzenstadt, artistic administrator to the Israeli Opera, added that, in the meantime, the role of Orfeo has been sung by many well-known tenors and women altos. The Israeli Opera, more-or-less sticking to Gluck’s original version, with the availability of two fine Israeli countertenors – Alon Harari and Yaniv D’Or – chose to have the role of Orfeo sung by a countertenor.

On the stage of the auditorium of the Israeli Opera, we see what could only be called the décor of a contemporary house (set designer, Boris Kudlicka), with, of course, a laptop computer on the table. Polish director Mariusz Trelinski (b.1962) rejects the historical trappings of stage productions, placing emphasis on the expressiveness and dramatic intensity of a work. Singers, dancers and actors were, of course, in modern dress. However, many details of the story had undergone change. For example, Euridice did not die of a snakebite, but committed suicide. And the scene of Orfeo walking with Euridice, finally turning to look at her, to lose her yet again, was not as clear and pivotal as might be. Heaven and hell were not represented visually for most of the performance (save for a short depiction of fire). Some nice effects were projected onto the surtitle screen…there one could see a character standing at the far side of the stage or even from off-stage, as if it were in your mind.

The Opera Orchestra, under the baton of David Stern, not playing on period instruments – there was a harpsichord – supported well, its playing, however, lacking Baroque shape and elegance. The Israeli Opera Chorus (conductor, Yishai Steckler) sang with a well-blended, rich sound that abounded in delicacy and good taste. The dancers, dressed in red, were impressive, adding energetic undercurrents to the opera plot. Countertenor Alon Harari (Orfeo), his well-rounded, stable and mellifluous vocal timbre always thrilling, performed with confidence and alacrity. Claire Meghnagi (Euridice) is a stage natural; opera is such a good medium for her. Her articulate singing pleased and rang out clearly, her dramatic performance convincing. In duet, Harari and Meghnagi delighted as they convincingly played out the roller coaster of love’s infatuations. Hila Fahima, as Amor (dressed as a post office courier) was bright and sparkly in both sound and personality. As to Gluck’s music to “Orfeo ed Euridice”, one’s ears are titillated throughout the work, with the audience waiting with bated breath for the much-loved aria of Orfeo, who, in profound grief, sings “Che faro senza Euridice?” (What will I do without Euridice?) Considering its heartbreaking content, Stern took the aria at a fairly fast pace.

Mariusz Trelinski’s message is that the characters of the opera are real people with human failings, moving from heaven to Hades in daily life. Still, I would prefer to be transported to other worlds on the opera stage. The stage setting appeared banal and uninspiring…lacking in magic, mystery and excitement, detracting from the story’s mythological duality. As to the visuals of heaven and hell, what’s wrong with a preview of the real thing?

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