OrfeoChristoph Willibald Gluck - Orfeo ed Euridice

Festival Castell de Peralada, 2011 | Gordon Nikolić, Carlus Padrissa, La Fura dels Baus, Anita Rachvelishvili, Maite Alberola, Auxiliadora Toledano, Aline Vincent | Unitel Classica - C-Major

As an avant-garde experimental theatre group, continually expanding their techniques using the modern technology available, La Fura dels Baus don’t exactly do opera in a way that is respectful of tradition. With modern works that are less than respectful of the opera tradition itself - Weill’s anti-opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny or Ligeti’s anti-antiopera Le Grand Macabre - this can be a good thing, but it’s more questionable when applied to the works of reformist composers who had very specific ideas and theories about the nature of opera as drama. With the grand works of Wagner, on the Ring cycle and even with something like Tristan und Isolde, there is perhaps more scope for a more ambitious conceptual approach, but can the extravagant modern techniques and projections employed by La Fura dels Baus really be appropriate to a work as intimate and intentionally stripped-back to basics as Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice?

Orfeo ed Euridice was indeed the first of Gluck’s reformist works, but it would only really be in its later French incarnation Orphée et Eurydice (alongside the composer’s other important French operas Alceste and Iphigenie en Tauride), that many of the mannerisms of the Baroque opera seria were dropped. Gradually, Gluck’s works would forego the use of the harpsichord, ballet music, mechanical stage effects, recitativo secco, extravagant aria da capo singing or indeed any decorative effects that didn’t serve the progression and meaning of the drama alone, but some of these elements still remain in this first version of Orfeo et Euridice, the Vienna version from 1762. Still, it would seem to go against the spirit of a work that only has three principal roles - and the majority of it sung by only one person - to stage it as extravagantly, colourfully and spectacularly as it’s done here, using every technological tool available - projections, computer generated lighting effects, singers hanging from cables above the stage - as well as making every effort to fill the ample outdoor stage of the Castell de Peralada not only with chorus and supernumeraries, but even putting the orchestra up there on the stage as well. This surely wasn’t what Gluck intended.

Well, that depends on whether what is up there on the stage enhances the work or detracts from it, and while Carlus Padrissa goes a little overboard on special effects - he’s rather too fond of hanging singers above the stage from cables for my liking - it seems to me (as someone who holds this work in its varied incarnations in very high regard as one of the greatest works in all of opera) that everything works nonetheless in perfect accord with the music, the singing and the dramatic intent of the original work. There’s no reason why spectacle and dramatic purpose can’t co-exist. While Cupid might swing down a cable to a position above the stage then (a stunt-double is used while Auxiliadora Toledano sings off-stage), it can be seen as appropriate to elevate the messenger of the gods above the mortals below. Perching Orpheus on top of Eurydice’s stone monument could also be seen as being a little over-the-top, but the use of the same block as a tombstone to chart his descent into Hades and his ascent out of it with Eurydice, is also a relatively simple but highly effective image. It’s in the depiction of the dark fiery landscapes of Hades, the assembled masses of Furies, shades and spectres, the serene beauty of the Elysian fields and the visions of the Blessed Spirits however that the director’s vision most impressively rises to the challenges in the score with some inventive techniques, projections and lighting effects that work hand-in-hand with what the music and the drama are telling us.

The orchestra, dressed in unflattering skin-tight body suits sitting in small individual pits on a stage that is tilted towards the audience, play their part in this too. Their position leaves only a diagonal space for the funeral procession of Eurydice in Act I, which makes it look like Padrissa is simply just trying to just fill the stage and keep it visually interesting, but they also get up and move around, playing at the same time, during Act II’s descent of Orpheus into Hades. It may not be what Gluck had in mind exactly when he set about making music serve a purely dramatic function, but one could argue that the music of Orpheus does indeed have a function in fending off the Furies, and highlighting that element in visual terms is a valid technique. It is at least not just some random concept that distracts from the meaning, but is clearly one that comes from paying close intention to the drama itself, and seeking to find the best way of illustrating it. Much like Gluck did when composing the work 250 years ago, La Fura dels Baus’ production represents the same kind of modernisation of stuffy theatricality and musical academicism that the composer was reacting against, showing that opera is capable of being the most invigorating of theatrical experiences.

Whether Gluck’s score really needs all this spectacle, or whether it isn’t more than capable of being perfectly expressive in purely musical and more traditional dramatic terms, is of course debatable. I’d be less inclined to look favourably on this production if the spectacle detracted from the musical and singing performances, or if it was weak in those areas, but fortunately this is a superb account of the 1762 Orfeo ed Euridice. It’s not ideal of course to have the conductor Gordon Nikolić wandering about on the stage, leading as the first violin, and there are some minor lapses in timing when the singers don’t have visual contact with the pit, but for the most part the music, the singing and the drama all come together marvellously to pure dramatic effect to express the full power of this remarkable work. Considering the challenges then, the singers perform admirably. Anita Rachvelishvili carries the burden of the work as Orpheus well, correctly focussing on the delivery of the singing here - which isn’t always easy - and letting the score and the staging carry the dramatic intent and nuance. Maite Alberola is a powerful Eurydice, working well with Rachvelishvili dramatically and musically in their combination of voices. Auxiliadora Toledano has a wonderful brightness of tone that serves well in her role as Cupid and messenger from the Gods.

I’ve been critical of Carlus Padrissa in the past (notably for the misguided concept in the La Fura production of Berlioz’s Les Troyens), but it’s evident here from the scale that this Festival Castell de Peralada production of Orfeo ed Euridice is intended - as it should be - principally for the audience in the theatre. This presents some difficulties for the video director Tiziano Mancini, who is forced to resort to some extreme angle post-production on-stage shots, editing effects and cross-cutting, but by and large, it gets the full impact and the dynamism of the stage production across well on this Blu-ray release. The HD video transfer is superb - colourful and pinpoint clear, with good sound reproduction in PCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1. The BD is all-region playable, with subtitles in Italian, German, English, French, Spanish, Chinese and Korean.