Gluck’s “Orphée et Eurydice” in many ways can be summed up by the movement of the four seasons – the bloom and beauty of love dashed away by the winter of death, only for spring to bloom yet again in a rebirth of the protagonists.
At the Teatro Mayor Julio Santo Domingo, the Ópera de Colombia and Teatro Mayor Julio Mario Santo Domingo’s co-production has taken this symbolic gesture quite literally. Performances kicked off on Tuesday, June 13, 2017, and concluded on the 14th.
Colombia, unlike Argentina or Mexico, is not among the Latin American countries generally known for their operatic culture, and this night was an opportunity to experience whether the potential for growth exists. While some of the greatest artists often make appearances in the city and throughout the country, to say that there is a consistent operatic culture in the country is not quite true.
Located in the North of Bogotá, the Teatro Mayor Julio Santo Domingo seats approximately 1,300 people and was constructed rather recently over the past decade with the intention of being a cultural center for the people of the Colombian capital. Entering the performance venue, one is struck by the intimacy of the hall, the opaque wooden color of the ceiling and its balconies and the honey of the seats making for a relaxed environment instead of the intense and imposing feeling one gets from the red of other opera houses.
The looming curtain that hung on stage prior to performance showcased the image of a single flower, and once the performance got underway that projection would be destroyed, the petals soaring up and then falling like snow as the opera commenced.
That symbol of dead flowers would crop up a few scenes later when Orphée made his journey into hell for the first time, a rotting flower bed hanging in the center of the stage surrounded by the hostile reds of hell.
But in the second half of the opera, director Alejandro Chacón opted for more placid feelings in opening scenes (images of the blue sky and water) before emphasizing a stony world of greys and purples. This harked back to the opening scene, when Orphée lamented the death of his wife in a grey cemetery that had had large columns upstage adding to the hardened edge of the piece.
In many ways, both visually and dramatically, this “Orphée” ultimately felt like two different productions jammed into one. The first half was utterly dominated by the dancers, the Colegio del Cuerpo de Cartagena, as their vicious movements in hell marginalized the hero to the edges of the stage.
The second half of the opera saw a far more delicate approach from the dancers, who receded into the background as the central couple’s emotional plight took center stage. And while this was definitely a good thing, it certainly left the viewer feeling that the development of this “character” had been truncated, taking away from of the organic nature of the dramatic action.
The opera itself only features three vocal soloists with chorus. As with the dancers, the chorus also seemed most prominent in the first half, their mummified movements in the opening scene surrounding Orphée essentially annihilating the central hero. Their protruding heads as the Furies in the wall of the inferno created arguably the most viscerally powerful image of the entire evening, amplified by the harsh and potent colors that choral director Luis Díaz Hérodier managed to obtain from them.
Ultimately, however, it is the soloists who really have to do the heavy lifting to make this opera emotionally riveting.
A Fully Fleshed but Vulnerable Hero
In the lead role of Orphée was mezzo-soprano Paola Gardina. Early on, she sang with a very fine and delicate sound, her voice almost but a hush that floated into the theater. But her voice grew in strength and passion with each repetition of “Eurydice” in those opening moments, the full potency slowly revealing itself. Her overall characterization emphasized vulnerability, Orphée revealed as a broken man only gradually gaining his strength after the death of his wife. We finally heard the full power of Gardina’s voice during “L’espoir renaît dans mon âme,” the mezzo throwing off the coloratura runs with abandon, the power of her sound giving off a sense of constant growth and blossom.
But as Orphée appeared in his confrontation with the Furies, gripping his harp with all his might, we could feel the vulnerability creeping back in. During the confrontation with Eurydice, Gardina’s anguish grew even greater than at any previous moment, her arched body language and pained facial expressions pushing the broken man to his limits. When Eurydice collapsed to the ground, Gardina delivered a gut-wrenching “J’ai perdu mon Eurydice,” her voice ushering in one lamenting phrase after another, the vibrato growing more intense. When Amore appeared to challenge her one last time, Gardina did away with any sense of refinement in the recitative, her voice almost shouting in fury to incredible dramatic effect.
And while the symbol of the flower seemed to disappear halfway through the performance, Gardina, in many ways, held that torch in her own interpretation of the role, delineating the destruction of a character only for the rebirth to ultimately bring about a new spring in his life.
As Amor, Colombian soprano Karolyn Rosero delivered polished singing in a very small package.
The Vocal Star
In many ways, the vocal star of the night was soprano Amalia Avilán as Eurydice. From her first vocal entrance, her voice was a radiant beam of sound. It had not only a strong sound that carried through the theater but oozed with tenderness and a delicious legato, each line blending beautifully into the next. Her scenes of torment were among the most powerfully rendered of the evening, each phrase growing in strength with desperation. Compounded with our knowledge of Orphée’s plight, the tension between Avilán and Gardina soared. In their physical interplay, there was even a hint of the challenges that this marriage might at times face in the real world. This of course was amplified by the sets themselves.
Strong Musical Support
In the pit, Adrián Chamorro did a fine job with the Orquesta Filarmónica de Cali, though the evening didn’t necessarily get off to the most exciting of starts. The jovial overture at times seemed constrained by the overemphasis on brass, which swallowed up the sounds of the sixteenth note figures in the winds. But this one musical hiccup aside, the remainder of the evening was exemplary in the overall sense of balance and structure, the music constantly pushing the drama forward and Chamorro always deferring to his soloists to set the musical bar.
In one of the most extraordinary moments of the night, flutist Bryan Muñoz appeared onstage for his famous solo, the wind instrument singing through one phrase and another. You wouldn’t be remiss to count him among the vocalists of the night, so polished and elegant was his playing.
Overall, this production was a triumph from a musical and, to a certain extent, a dramatic standpoint. There aren’t many opera productions in Bogotá throughout the year, but it was heartening to see the theater at capacity, clearly expressing an interest in the cultural growth of the city. And on the evidence of this performance, it has to be reinforced and developed. It was clear to me that the artists on hand, from the dancers to the chorus to the soloists, two of whom were native Colombians, showed the necessary talent to develop a vibrant musical culture.