The Ensemble review: A star is born

Laura Beckel Thoreson is astounding in an 18th-century opera

by TERRY ROSS

From the 17th to the 20th century, composers of no small reputation have felt compelled to tell the story of the ur-musician Orpheus, who took his lyre down to Hades to rescue his beloved Eurydice from her premature death. Such illustrious composers as Claudio Monteverdi, Heinrich Schütz, Matthew Locke, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Georg Philipp Telemann, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Josef Haydn, Jacques Offenbach, Claude Debussy, and Darius Milhaud, as well as scores of others, have all had a crack at the timeless story.

The Ensemble performed a concert version of Gluck’s operatic retelling of the Orpheus myth.

In his impressive 1762 azione teatrale called Orfeo ed Euridice, Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) like others before and after him, chose to give the tale a happy ending: despite his disobedience Orfeo is rewarded by Amore (one of the three characters in this drama), with the resuscitation of Eurydice, and they all live (presumably) happily ever after.

But it’s all in how you get there. At The Ensemble’s March 19 concert at the Old Church, getting there was a continuous pleasure — and a revelation. This was mostly thanks to the talents of Laura Beckel Thoreson, the Vancouver WA mezzo-soprano who sang the central role of Orfeo.

Emotional Drama

Gluck composed no fewer than 49 operas, a dozen or so of which survive as fragments and three dozen as full scores. Despite this copious output, not many are performed today — an occasional Iphigénia en Aulide (1774) or Iphigénie en Tauride (1779) from time to time, but that’s it. Which is why Patrick McDonough is to be congratulated for his revival, in concert form, of Gluck’s Orfeo. Heavy on recitative and relatively low on memorable arias, it possesses nevertheless a “can’t lose” story.

Here, Gluck offered one of his first examples of the sort of reforms he thought opera should make: away from the excessive theatrics of the castrati who dominated the stage in Italy, Germany, and England, and toward a more attentive focus on the emotional drama, rather than the performers’ excesses. In Gluck’s original Vienna production, the part of Orfeo was taken by a celebrated alto castrato, a male who had been surgically altered to preserve his “female” voice. Later, in France, Gluck rearranged his opera to feature a female mezzo-soprano, and the role has subsequently been sung by tenors, countertenors, and even baritones, with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau an illustrious example.

Aside from Orfeo’s singing, and that of his co-stars Euridice (here portrayed by soprano Jessica Beebe, from Philadelphia) and Amore (local soprano Arwen Myers), Gluck’s opera originally included a great deal of baroque dance, omitted in this concert version. Ms. Thoreson was therefore at center stage literally throughout the performance. And she seized the opportunity.

Laura Beckel Thoreson.

To hear Ms. Thoreson, all other versions fall aside. Her rich voice, which seems to have no breaks in it anywhere from her soprano tones at the top to her low tenor notes at the bottom, seems expressly suited to the part of the love-lorn Orfeo. Whether in aria’s solo flights or in recitative’s declamations, she shows a voice to die for.

Even in this unstaged version, she “acted” her part very convincingly, from Orfeo’s misery at losing Euridice, to his joy at getting her back, to his suicidal anguish when she dies again, and finally to his unalloyed joy when Amore returns her once more. It’s not just the size of her voice that impresses, it’s the combination of a large, wonderful instrument with excellent taste that sets her apart. I don’t think there has been as outstanding a local mezzo since the heady days of Christine Meadows, who did a turn with Beverly Sills at the New York City Opera more than twenty years ago.

A chorus of commentators added depth and color to the proceedings. These admirable singers, one-on-a-part, were soprano Catherine van der Salm, alto Sue Hale, tenor Nicholas Ertsgaard, and bass David Stutz. A small instrumental ensemble accompanied throughout: two violins, viola, cello, harpsichord, oboe, bassoon, and harp. The Ensemble’s founder, McDonough, conducted with aplomb.

But the night belonged to Laura Beckel Thoreson. She spends a fair amount of time, when she’s not dashing off to Eugene or Indianapolis or Georgia or Utah to perform in operas, singing in ensembles in Portland, usually one-on-a-part affairs, as was the case in The Ensemble’s previous concert. That she indulges in this sort of choral singing is a blessing for local groups but a glaring misuse of her abilities. As she showed at the Old Church, Laura Beckel Thoreson is a headliner, a star.

Recommended recordings

• Bernarda Fink, mezzo-soprano, Freiberger Barockorchester, Rias Kammerchor, René Jacobs conducting (Harmonia Mundi HMY2921742/43), 2014.

• Derek Lee Ragin, countertenor, English Baroque Soloists, Monteverdi Choir, John Eliot Gardiner conducting (Decca 4783425), 1991.

Terry Ross is a Portland freelance journalist and the director of The Classical Club, through which he offers classical music appreciation sessions. He can be reached at classicalclub@comcast.net.

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