Jacob A. Climer

‘Orfeo ed Euridice’ review: back from the dead

Portland Opera creates a new production of Gluck’s masterpiece that the composer himself might have enjoyed

by BRUCE BROWNE and DARYL BROWNE

I’ll admit, I’ve been negligent about my concert attendance of late. My reasoning, I suppose, is that I needed a good long rest. But now having roused myself to attentiveness I have heard that I perhaps made a bit of an impression back in my day; that my ideas on opera might have taken off. Perhaps I left the art form better for my having been one of its most ardent of admirers. And right here, I see that the Portland Opera is performing my Orfeo ed Euridice. Delightful!

So it is that Christoph Willibald von Ritter Gluck is sitting in the fifth row center at the Newmark Theater in Portland5 Center for the Arts. In an otherworldly haze (he’s been dead some 230 years), he’s leafing through the Portland Opera’s magazine TOI! TOI! from the 2017-18 season taking stock of the opera performances that have preceded his. A Rossini (La Cenerentola), a Gounod (Faust), a Verdi (Rigoletto). A season of grand tales. Grand stages, grand effects, grand orchestras and, then, there it is. His Orfeo ed Euridice as the end piece. The closer. Did he imagine when he sent it into the world in 1762 that it be a firestarter, reigniting a smoldering musical genre?

Actually, yes, this was his master plan.

Lindsay Ohse as Euridice and Sandra Piques Eddy as Orfeo in Portland Opera’s production of Gluck’s ‘Orfeo ed Euridice.’ Photo: Cory Weaver/ Portland Opera.

This plan was years in contemplation. For so long, opera had been disfigured, abused. Soloists performed florid arias, repeating passages with embellishments not once but twice, thrice, only to launch into ego-boosting cadenzas. Ah, well. I had a different idea in mind.

Gluck, Bavarian by birth, had his first opera produced in Milan in 1741, on a libretto by the revered Pietro Metastasio. This prolific poet and librettist was living in Vienna and enjoying extreme popularity as a poet for the virtuosic singer, writing not for the drama but for the virtuosic effect. The story line, character development and plots became secondary. Opera Seria stagnated in this atmosphere

Oh, those operas of Metastasio — “opera seria.” I had grown weary of the ridiculous pandering to vocalists, the loss of story. I longed to return to the great tales, to make the stage come alive with movement and fill the air with music in search of a story. Oh, but did it cause a commotion.

Gluck (and later Mozart) would place all forces (singer, orchestra, ballet, chorus, staging) on equal footing, all in the service of the story. The Handelian da capo “variations” were decapitated. Orchestral overtures, chorus and ballet were added. Gluck had already broken away from “opera seria” in the years prior to Orfeo with several “opera comique.” Now he would tackle the status quo of opera seria.

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Dancing in the Underworld

The movement's uninspired, but Portland Opera's production of Gluck's "Orfeo ed Euridice" is musically magnificent. By all means go.

With its glorious melodies , menacing harmonies, and inclusion of music for dances that actually drive the plot rather than functioning as interludes giving singers a chance to catch their breath, Christoph Willibald Gluck’s 1762 opera Orfeo ed Eurydice has inspired some extremely distinguished   20th and 21st century choreographers.   George Balanchine did a radical version for the Metropolitan Opera in 1936, in a conceptual collaboration with painter Pavel Tchelitchew, that put the singers in the pit and the dancers in the air. Forty years later, having choreographed to Gluck’s music several times in between, Balanchine made the beautiful Chaconne as a vehicle for Suzanne Farrell and Peter Martins. In 1953 Sir Frederick Ashton choreographed it for Covent Garden. Mark Morris staged it first in 1986 for the Handel and Haydn Society, and in 2007 directed and choreographed a modern-dress production for the Met, with the chorus dressed as characters from history placed on a platform above the stage, commenting, so to speak, on the action taking place below them.

A dance scene in Portland Opera’s “Orfeo ed Euridice.” Photo: Cory Weaver/Portland Opera

Because of this history, and my own longtime affection for Gluck’s score (I’ve been listening to this gorgeous music since I was fifteen), I was delighted to learn that the Portland Opera was performing this version of the Orpheus story for the first time (they did Philip Glass’s in 2009), and at the Newmark Theater at that, vastly preferable to the all too spacious Keller Auditorium. The knowledge that Oregon Ballet Theatre principal dancer Peter Franc and OBT soloist Katherine Monogue, lovely dancers both of them, would perform added to the attraction.

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