In an inspired piece of programming the Tiroler Landestheater, Innsbruck paired Strauss’ “Capriccio” with Gluck’s “Orphée et Eurydice,” which were performed over two consecutive evenings. Separated by more than 160 years and in fundamentally different styles, they are nevertheless natural companion pieces. Although ‘Capriccio’ makes both musical and verbal references to Gluck, the connections between the two operas run far deeper: both composers confronted the very form of opera itself.
Gluck, on a very practical level, set about reforming “opera seria,” most notably and successfully in “Orfeo ed Eurydice,” in which he attempted to redress the balance between its various components, particularly between the words and the music, with the aim of promoting dramatic unity, and in the process eliminating some of its excesses, such as the coloratura demanded by singers and the notorious da capo aria, producing in Gluck’s own words music of “beautiful simplicity.”
Strauss, on the other hand, addressed the balance between the components from an aesthetic and theoretical standpoint, albeit in a light-hearted, but by no means frivolous manner, using his opera “Capriccio” itself as the forum for the discussion. This pairing, therefore, invited the audience at the Landestheater to assess the theater’s production of Gluck’s great reform opera in terms of the various arguments employed by the characters from Strauss’ final opera.
Originally written in 1762 for Vienna, Gluck extensively revised it for Paris in 1774 as “Orphée et Eurydice,” altering the orchestration, transposing the role of Orphée from castrato to a high-tenor and adding a lot of new musical material, including embellishments, extra arias, and a substantial amount of ballet music, much of which was imported from his reform ballet “Don Juan.” It is in this version that the Landestheater has decided to perform the work, complete with the full ballet, which is normally cut from modern productions. The overall effect shifts the focus of the work towards the dance sections. In fact, the performance has been publicized as a “Ballettoper.” Titling the work as a ‘Ballettoper’ is probably more accurate than one might at first suspect, for this production not only includes all the ballet scenes from the original Paris production but goes much further and uses dance throughout the opera, even during the singing sections.
The work has, therefore, travelled quite a distance from Gluck’s original “azione teatrale” of 1762, and if, as in the eyes of many commentators it does, the 1774 version compromises Gluck’s reforming vision, this Landestheater production appears to have cast it aside completely, abandoning simplicity in favor of spectacle, clarity in favour of embellishment and unity in favour of its individual parts.
Too Much Dancing
The overture sets the tone for the evening. To great dramatic effect the dancers flood onto the stage, Eurydice pursued by the serpent that eventually kills her. It is an imaginative and exciting introduction to the evening, and totally in keeping with the piece. Yet, this is only the beginning of the dancers’ role as throughout the first two acts they rarely leave the stage. Their dancing was always engaging, demanding the audience’s full attention and, in any particular scene, it was never at odds with drama.
However, the problem came from the fact that it did demand the audience’s full attention. As it was constantly exposed to wonderful, exciting and graceful movement, the audience lost sight, sometimes literally, of Orphée, who was dragged hither and thither by the dancers as he delivered his lines. In the third act, the dancers had a reduced role, leaving the stage free for the two lovers for long(ish) periods of time, and allowing the audience to focus their attention on the drama, thus, bringing a greater degree of balance to the production.
There were also problems with the choreography, not with the dancing itself which was always beautifully designed and executed, but in its relation to the chorus and the principal singers. The dancers need space, and the stage at the Landestheater is not the biggest, so where should the chorus be placed when singing, given that the dancers take the space in the center of the stage? The answer: At the back and around its edges, or sometimes intermingled with the dancers themselves. Not only did this compromise the sound and their dramatic impact, but once again encouraged the audience to focus on the dance and forget the drama. The first appearance of Eurydice was particularly annoying as she was placed centre-left of the stage, surrounded by dancers and chorus, so many bodies, in fact, that it was not possible to hear her properly. However make no mistake, the ballet did add to the drama, and not only in the prescribed dance sections.
The Leading Man
The star of the evening’s performance was undoubtedly the Slovenian tenor, Aco Aleksandrer Biscevic, not least for his ability to sing in some very uncomfortable situations. He has a high-lying tenor, which he used to great effect in his portrayal of Orphée, and was perfectly suited, both physically and vocally, to the role.
Dressed in a dark waistcoat, white shirt, and dark trousers, he looked more like a bookmaker’s clerk, but he sang and acted with great dignity and restraint and brought to life the Orphée of classical antiquity. His voice possesses a sweet light tone, which glided through the score, and his phrasing of the accompanied recitatives was smooth and accomplished. Perhaps one criticism that could be leveled at Biscevic is that he failed to make the most of his arias, tending to underplay them slightly, certainly, that was the case with Orphée’s famous lament “J’ai perdu mon Eurydice.” Although, it certainly was not the case with the bravura aria “L’espoir renait dans mon ame” that closes the first act, which he despatched with a great deal of energy and verve. Two dancers stood either side of him, moving up and down in tandem with his vocal fireworks, which brought a little levity to the scene.
The Leading Lady
Notwithstanding her early problems of trying to make herself heard through the bodies on a crowded stage, Susanne Langbein as Eurydice grew quickly into the role and gave a splendid performance. Her lively lyric soprano voice was nicely suited to the role and she made a strong impression of a woman under strain, unable to understand Orphée’s behavior. Her voice blended beautifully in the duets and the accompanied exchanges with Orphée. In the trio, “Tendre Amour” with Orphée and Amour, the three singers created a mesmerizing sound, although the quasi-dance routine that they used to accompany it was, by this time, becoming a bit tiresome.
Amour was sung by Sophia Theodorides. She portrayed the god of love as a flirtatious, playful spirit, out for a bit of fun, and dressed accordingly in a party dress and silver shoes. Her light bright soubrette soprano has a pleasant flexible tone. She appeared to be enjoying the part and played it with a carefree attitude that heightened the appeal.
The rest of the production
Unsurprisingly, the director, Enrique Gasa Valga, who was also responsible for the choreography, has a background in dance. This was particularly noticeable given the focus of the production and the brilliance with which the dancers performed their roles. Moreover, his insistence that, even when singing, Orphée should be subject to constant attention from the dancers, even going so far as to have him occasionally join in the dancing himself, gives further evidence of his priorities. His handling of the chorus, as has already been mentioned, was unsatisfactory. Nevertheless, by having Orphée standing front of the stage, sometimes sitting with his legs dangling over the edge, at least for some parts of the performance, he gave the production some enjoyable intimate moments.
The staging and costumes were simple in the extreme. As the stage was needed for the dance, scenery was not a viable option. The only concessions made being a mirror that was lowered during the final act when Orphée was struggling to avoid turning back to look at Eurydice, and a series of white sheets that were occasionally lowered from above. The costumes for the chorus, always in black and/or white, suggested antiquity, but were not time specific, until the final scene in which the chorus was dressed as in 1940/50s attire when they indulged themselves by… …yes, dancing across the stage.
The Tiroler Symphony Orchestra was under the baton of the South Korean Seokwon Hong. He produced a well-balanced, dignified sound. A variety of textures were beautifully elicited from the orchestra, which never dominated and always supported the singers. His control of the tempi was exemplary, matching the onstage dance.
So the question begging for an answer is, what are we to make of the Landestheater’s production of “Orphée et Eurydice?” The answer depends on who is answering the question.
Gluck, I think, would not have been too pleased, as this production has moved too far from his 1762 Vienna version and the reforms he had been keen to introduce into the opera house. The focus on dance has definitely elevated spectacle above drama and destroyed the simplicity he sought.
The audience, without a doubt, enjoyed the performance and judging by their reaction, would certainly have considered it a success. In fact, the production has been scheduled for a further run in the 2017/18 season.
And what did the arguments forwarded in “Capriccio” tell us? Well, ultimately there was no firm conclusions.
Olivier would have been upset by the reduced role of the poet.
Flamand, the musician would, I think, be content. After all, the music is essential to both singing and dancing.
La Roche wearing the hat of theater director would have been happy with the audience’s reaction, but on a personal level would have been left cold by Gluck’s “learned music” and the loss of his beloved “bel canto.”
The final arbiter must, however, be Countess Madeleine, who would, no doubt, simply offer us a mischievous smile, knowing that muses are a fickle bunch, and leave us to make of it what we will.