Seattle Opera’s Orphée Rings Out With a Tenor’s Tour de Force Performance
Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice from 1774 arrived in Paris scant years after the florid, lavish displays of Baroque opera were still going strong there, and it couldn’t have been a bigger contrast. “Noble simplicity” was Gluck’s intention, and director/producer José Maria Condemi of Seattle Opera’s production of Orphée (through March 10 at McCaw Hall) has followed that dictum with faithful imagination.
One might wonder how three singers and a spare set, plus a chorus, could fill McCaw’s stage, maintain constant interest, and propel the forward momentum of the story, but, believe me, they do.
First, the singers: William Burden takes on the high tenor role (higher than it was originally written as pitch has gone up since 1774) for all six performances. It’s a tour de force. He is on stage for most of the 90-minute opera (plus a half hour intermission), and most of that time the focus is on him.
Each aria is more beautiful than the last as he sings them, his recitatives deeply expressive, but what rivets the attention is the despair and grief of a man whose beloved has just died, the determination to win her back, the agony, the frustration and helplessness, the pain when he realizes he can’t do what the gods have demanded as conditions for getting her back, the devastation when she dies again and he feels it’s his fault, and at the last, the joy when the gods, in the form of Amour, relent and bring her back to him alive.
I imagine I was not the only audience member hunting for a tissue during the journey back from the Underworld where Orphée may not look full at Eurydice, nor tell her why he can’t, and she becomes more and more frantic and upset in her lack of understanding until he finally does look and he’s holding her corpse. The set for this was merely a huge set of lit tree roots overhead stage left, the rest of the stage matte black. Only the two characters are also lit, so there is nothing to take the attention from this painful scene.
Spanish soprano Davinia Rodriguez also has the acting chops as well as the voice for Eurydice, and looked the role as well in a classically draped robe of ice blue. As for Amour (Love), easily sung by soprano Julianne Gearhart, she is here a pert girl in pink flounces, outrageous orange hair, and gold boots arriving on a gold bicycle and changing the emotional atmosphere every time she comes on.
The chorus sings splendidly all through, as mourners at the start (looking like photos from World War II Europe, silhouetted in their long coats and knit hats); as the Furies in red and black, winding tubes of gauzy fabric around their upper bodies, waving like something amoebic with tendrils to catch Orphée; as the happy dead dancing in the Elysian Fields; and finally as the friends rejoicing in Eurydice’s return.
The strong sets, designed by Seattle Opera’s Phillip Lienau with suggestions from Condemi, enhance the story. The huge downed tree trunk of the first and last act covers nearly half the stage. That and a mounded horizon are all there is, and at first everything is in silhouette, including Eurydice’s funeral procession, against a winter sky. It’s very effective, and with changed lighting, the feel is quite different in the last act, where the tree has sprouted bunches of flowers and the mound is grassy. The Elysian Fields have just the mound with flowers, the right slope for dancers to slide down.
The Furies’ set is the busiest, a backdrop of writhing painted roots which seem to have a life of their own, red and black like the Furies themselves. Only Orphée in white stands out.
Dance, so important in French opera, comes into both the Furies scene and the Elysian Fields. Yannis Adoniou choreographs the Furies with the same writhing feel as the backdrop as they surround Orphée and eventually allow him onward, while in the Elysian Fields, the movements could all come from Greek urn paintings as they mime love, happiness and what will happen if Orphée looks at Eurydice as he leads her out. The women’s costumes could also be inspired by the same, though the men including Orphée are mostly clad in what appear to be surgical pajamas.
With ideas and input from Condemi, Heidi Zamora designed the costumes, Connie Yun the lighting. Both they and Lienau are Seattle Opera staff, so that this production’s entire design and execution have come from in-house, a triumph for the company and a display of its caliber.
The whole is conducted by Gary Thor Wedow, no stranger to the Seattle Opera podium. This is 18th-century music, and Wedow gives it an appropriately early classical touch, with lute and harpsichord, while Seattle Symphony principal flutist Demarre McGill shines in the long flute solo. The production is a tight one, with every aspect furthering the story, as Gluck, and Condemi, wanted. The result is a gem, leaving many memories to savor, but best of all is the sound in one’s ears of Burden’s singing.