This is for the performance on Feb. 11, 2023.
The posters are all over Paris: Gluck’s “Orphée et Eurydice” is premiering at Thêatre l’Athénée. The announcement is somewhat tempered, however, by the ominous qualifier: ‘freely adapted by Othman Louati.’ Even the most enthusiastic contemporary operagoer must raise their eyebrows when the words ‘freely adapted’ appear after Gluck’s name. The ‘freely’ makes everything scarier: how ‘free’ can ‘freely’ be? If it is not an adaptation for children, why would anyone want to–or even allow for–an adaptation of Gluck’s most beloved opera?
A possible explanation comes to mind. Opera houses are facing financial struggles, especially in medium-sized French cities. Reducing the orchestra allows these houses to save money and capitalize on a household name while proposing something postmodern and excitingly new–if well-done. This “Orphée” is a production of the ensemble Ensemble Miroirs Étendus, which includes the opera houses of Rouen, Lille, and the Imperial Theater of Compiègne. Rouen recently had to cancel almost an entire month of their season due to economic reasons. These are difficult times, and an adaptation of “Orphée” is just what these houses need.
It is not the first time that Gluck’s score has had some work done on it by anachronistic hands. Besides Gluck’s two versions—in Italian and French—Hector Berlioz also adapted the score to fit the needs of 19th century opera houses. The score’s elasticity, however, does not give Louati permission to adapt without purpose. Whatever motivating financial concerns this production may have had, the adaptation, fortunately, has much to say, especially about Gluck’s theatrical strength. “Orphée” is Gluck’s first ‘reformed’ opera. The composer is noted for his disruptions within the genre. He would often try to reduce an opera to its’ most minimal, core elements. The opera has only three protagonists, and its’ action is as concise as it could be. It is opera as modern theatre, in which the elements essential to musical drama thrive. Louati is no stranger to adapting—if not recomposing—other people’s work. It seems to me, however, that in his “Orphée et Eurydice,” his interventions are felt mostly in the orchestration, where some new music has been added in a few specific moments.
The new adaptation exults in the textual and melodical power of Gluck’s work. Orphée’s first aria benefits the most from it. The succinct ensemble, and the small theater, gives space for the singer to explore the drama as much as they can. The anachronistic intervention of electric instruments is embedded within a satisfying narrative construction. The chorus of Hades is played by an electric guitar in a higher part of the pit. It is a compelling and interesting way to suggest that the sounds of Tartarus cannot exist within the human realm of voice and words.
If the theatrical power of the music is mostly taken care of by Louati, the staging by Thomas Bouvet works well in being as minimal as possible: there is little place for affectations. All protagonists are women dressed as women. Although the queerness in having a woman singing a male role is often explored by scholars, in this production there is no attempt to either disguise the mezzo-soprano’s gender, or to create a lesbian love story. The point here is to endorse the distance between the musical text and the actors’ bodies. They are singers singing their text, with no risk of being consumed by the character. In certain ways, the acting leads to the Brechtian ideal of the Verfremdungseffekt. The lack of physical action makes all the movements and expressions only more meaningful. The absence of any operatic gimmick makes Gluck’s work sound and look even more revolutionary. Louati and Bouvet, emphasizing the tragic aspect of the original Greek myth, have redone the opera’s festive original ending, creating instead a more ambiguous one. Although I appreciate the effort, I might say that the final scene works better scenically than musically. That did not prevent me from enjoying the spectacle as a whole, however.
This production worked so well because of its’ strong cast. Orphée is sung by the excellent mezzo-soprano Floriane Hasler. Despite such an intimate staging, Hasler displayed great acting skills, even though much of her physicality had been chopped away. Her voice is extremely warm, and her medium and upper registers are among the freshest sounds I have heard lately. Her tone is lyrical, preserving the welcoming vibrato so common in the school of bel canto. Her lower register is not very audible, but that is normal, given the nature of her instrument. She managed to make all Orphée’s arias a special journey through the melody and text. Hasler’s voice sounded extremely well with the Athénée’s acoustics, though it is a small theater that seats roughly 500 spectators.
Mariamielle Lamagat’s Eurydice was a great surprise. The soprano has a tight vibrato and facility with coloratura. What I particularly appreciated in her performance, however, was how she utilised l’Athénée’s acoustics to make her occlusive consonant sounds–“‘p’ and ‘b’” especially–extremely explosive. She did this without ever compromising her legato, making the text even more electrifying. Maybe the same effect would not have been possible in a larger theater, but these small details showcased Lamagat’s smartness in performance.
Soprano Amélie Raison brought us an Amour of a different voice. Her tone was limpid, with little vibrato. Her ‘Eurydice Respire’ was an ethereal fiat lux moment of the night.
The chorus–here reduced to only four voices–worked well, bringing a sense of madrigal to the soundscape. The Ensemble Miroirs Étendus played their part wonderfully. Their performance underlined the melodic themes, and they always played along with the vocal line. Fiona Monbet was extremely precise and expressive in her conducting. Despite the ensemble being a small group of musicians, it was evident how Monbet was central to bringing to life the theatrical power of the sound.
Anaïs Georgel, at the sound table, must also be recognised. There is some debate–and a deal of purism–over performing opera with microphones. Many operagoers believe that opera is the realm for analogic sound only. If a singer is artificially amplified, it can be a major scandal. I must stress that the soloists were not amplified: only the off-stage chorus. In the case of this “Orphée,” the sound amplification worked particularly well, bringing back some sounds from the orchestral pit, such as very subtle percussion movements and the acoustic guitar. In my opinion, the greatest electroacoustic work is almost inaudible or unnoticeable, and that was the case this production.
A final note must be made. We are in difficult, yet exciting, times for listening to opera. Despite well-known financial struggles, new operas are entering the seasonal repertoire of even giant opera houses like the Met and La Scala. With these new incursions into the operatic future, with the expansion of the catalogue, there seems to be no single, innately correct path away from the current crisis. In fact, part of what might come to delimit the sustainability of the genre might be the endorsement of many different artistic solutions that still preserve artistic excellence. This is not an endorsement of ill-willed politics–such as the menaces suffered by English National Opera earlier this year–but actually a claim that there must be many approaches to opera and its performance: theaters great and small, different ensemble groups, and different voice types. The main issue here is to not confuse cost efficiency with the search for artistic excellence.
With this in mind, l’Athénée’s “Orphée” is a refreshing take. It preserves the importance of lyrical singing, and it thrives because of it, but it also explores the possibilities of the opera in different scenic and acoustic projects: all within the walls of a theatre! It is about postmodern takes on classical music, but it is also about raising Gluck’s score without deconstructing it to the ground. And if the reader still prefers a more canonical take on Gluck’s masterpiece, that is perfectly fine. Just this season there were, in Paris alone, at least two other productions of the opera, at the Philarmonie and Champs-Elysées. It is this plurality on the horizon of opera that inspires me.