sat 18/11/2017

Orphée et Eurydice, Royal Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Orphée et Eurydice, Royal Opera

Orphée et Eurydice, Royal Opera

A sober and lovely season-opener at Covent Garden

The essential intimacy of this chamber drama: Juan Diego Florez, Lucy CroweBill Cooper

The tale of Orpheus – a musician so talented his art could overturn the laws of the universe – is the originary myth of opera itself. Is it any wonder, then, that it’s a story that the genre continues to tell and retell with such care and fascination? Three versions, spanning almost four centuries from Rossi’s 1647 Orpheus to Little Bulb Theatre’s 21st-century production, punctuate the current Royal Opera House season, starting with Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice – seen for the first time in the company’s history in its French reworking.

Dominated almost to the point of imbalance by its ballet interludes, Gluck’s telling more than any other celebrates music itself – the heroic force for which the grieving Orpheus is merely a vessel. It’s with this in mind that directors John Fulljames and Hofesh Shechter put music quite literally front and centre, raising conductor John Eliot Gardiner and his period English Baroque Soloists out of the pit and onto the stage (the Hofesh Schechter Company with English Baroque soloists, pictured below). There, by means of some magical hydraulics, they rise and fall – at times hovering above the action on a raised platform, at others sunk down into the body of the stage itself.

Conor Murphy’s designs balance their architectural sobriety with delicacy and beauty

This stratified, hierarchical design, with its gentle suggestion of Underworld, Earth and the kingdom of the Gods, provides the framework for a contemporary reworking that keeps sets and props to a minimum, establishing space and spaces for the chorus and Shechter’s dancers to inhabit. Inevitably there have already been dark murmurings about multi-storey carparks. Ignore them. Conor Murphy’s designs balance their architectural sobriety with delicacy and beauty – a bronze roof punctured with beams of starry light for the Dance of the Blessed Spirits is just one memorable gesture.

An opera of just three principals cannot take too much visual embellishment before getting lost in it, especially – as here – when both chorus and dancers are so dominant a presence. Through careful use of lighting (beautifully designed by Lee Curran) Fulljames and Shechter manage to retain the essential intimacy of this chamber drama, occasionally widening the beam to invite the community in before closing back down to spotlight focus once again.

It helps that solo and chorus forces are each so outstanding – a natural dramatic foil for one another. Juan Diego Florez’s technique serves him well through this punishingly high-lying role (“Amour viens rendre à mon âme” unfolds in easy coloratura spasms of grief), but more impressive than his signature solid top-notes and projection is the fragility he manages to bring to the role. At times his technique can almost seem the enemy of characterisation, so reliably and assertively heroic, whatever the scenario. Here, however, he finds an unsettling desperation, redeploying his virtuosity as maddened urgency.

Lucy Crowe’s Eurydice is warm and lovely, human-frail in her jealous insecurity but crucially never petulant. Her rounded tone balances Florez’s bladed delivery, making much of the duets. American soprano Amanda Forsyth makes a spunky Amour (pictured below), all gold lamé suit and cheeky jobsworth attitude – saving the day, but only just. The ringing purity of her “Soumis au silence” played off nicely against her irreverence, the only touch of dramatic light in an otherwise sober production.

Gluck saves much of his finest vocal writing for the chorus, and Gardiner’s Monteverdi Choir here showed just why it pays to bring in specialists (nightmares of the ENO chorus recent Indian Queen still haunt me) to sing music they understand so well. Bleeding in and out from among the Hofesh Shechter Company dancers, the chorus mourned and rejoiced with sensitive musicality, acting vocally with even more colours and subtleties than the principals. Where they added emotional depth and static beauty, their dancing alter egos (propelled by the Gardiner’s briskly organic speeds and the vibrant playing of the English Baroque Soloists) brought much-needed energy. Shechter’s convulsive choreography won’t be to everyone’s taste, but its battle between classical rigidity and primal, broken twitchings and flailings speaks to the revolutionary quality of Gluck’s “reform” opera, finding a contemporary echo to its still-shockingly contemporary dramatic gestures.

A thoughtful, softly-spoken season-opener, Orphée et Eurydice bodes well for what’s to come at the Royal Opera House – a production whose music alone will surely preserve it from the operatic Underworld.

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