CHRISTOPH WILLIBALD GLUCK (1714 – 1787): Orfeo ed Euridice, Wq.30 (1762 Vienna version) — Nicholas Tamagna (Orfeo), Kearstin Piper Brown (Euridice), Laura León (Amore), Kinneret Ely (ensemble soprano), Alison Taylor Cheeseman (ensemble mezzo-soprano), Pavel Suliandziga (ensemble tenor), Suchan Kim (ensemble baritone); Opera in Williamsburg Orchestra; Jorge Parodi, harpsichord continuo and conductor [Benjamin Spierman, stage director; Naama Zahavi-Ely, visual designer, video editor, and producer; Eric Lamp, costume designer; Deborah Jo Knopik-Barrett, production/stage manager; Streamed performance by Opera in Williamsburg, Williamsburg, Virginia, USA; 15 December 2020]
Integral to the human condition is the pursuit of understanding, observing phenomena in nature and humanity and striving to discover or devise rationalizations for the inexplicable. From this impulse arose ancient civilizations’ mythologies, via which cultures analyzed the world around them in scenarios that resonated with their unique circumstances. Astronomical, geological, and climatic events beyond the scope of scientific evaluation thus became physical manifestations of interactions among gods, men, and the legions of beings neither wholly divine nor mortal; beings like Orpheus, the prophetic figure, celebrated by Pindar but ignored by Hesiod, whose mastery of song transcended human abilities. Esteemed by Horace as a tamer of savages, celebrated by Aristophanes and Euripides as the prince of poets, and dismissed by Aristotle as a figure of metaphor rather than history, Orpheus was one of Antiquity’s most influential entities.
From Jacopo Peri’s Euridice in 1600 to Philip Glass’s Orphée nearly four centuries later, opera has often turned to Orpheus as a source of inspiration. The son of the Muse Calliope and either the Thracian king Oeagrus or the god Apollo, Orpheus was reputed to have perfected the art of song and Hermes’s lyre to such an extent that even Hades and its guardians could be bewitched by his artistry. The allure of Orphic myths to composers endeavoring to charm audiences with their own arts is obvious. The symbolism of the saga of a musician utilizing his own gifts to subvert conventions must have appealed irresistibly to Christoph Willibald Gluck. Having won acclaim for his contributions to the Late-Baroque bravura style, he resolved to refashion his work for the stage to resurrect the purer aesthetics of Ancient Greek theater, preferring emotional directness to ornate vocal display. Continuing the legacy of pioneering settings of the Orpheus myth by Peri, Claudio Monteverdi, and Luigi Rossi, the Hellenic world’s most hailed musician provided Gluck with an ideal vehicle for his operatic reformation.
Gluck had lived and worked in Vienna for nearly a decade when, in 1761, he was joined in the Habsburg seat by a fellow artist who shared his vision of minimizing the excesses of Italianate virtuosity in opera, the poet Ranieri de’ Calzabigi. Exposed during an extended residency in Paris to the tragédies lyriques of Lully, Marais, and Rameau, Calzabigi regarded the opportunities for displays of vocal prowess demanded by fêted singers as perversions of poets’ and composers’ service to their Muses. In the mythological tale of Orpheus’s refusal to accept the loss of his beloved Eurydice, Gluck and Calzabigi found an aptly non-conformist subject for the azione teatrale with which they launched their ambitious collaboration. The première of their Orfeo ed Euridice in Vienna’s Burgtheater on 5 October 1762, received the imperial sanction of Empress Maria Theresa’s attendance. Two-and-a-half millennia after his first known appearances in literature, Orpheus sang anew, expanding his mythology with an opera that continues to epitomize music’s capacities for evolution and rebellion.
Gli amanti riuniti: soprano Kearstin Piper Brown as Euridice (left) and countertenor Nicholas Tamagna as Orfeo (right) in Opera in Williamsburg’s virtual production of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, 15 December 2020
[Image © by Opera in Williamsburg]
Producing opera is ever a Herculean task: producing opera during a global pandemic is the stuff of Homerian epics. The myriad challenges of bringing artistic initiatives of any breadth to fruition in 2020 notwithstanding, Opera in Williamsburg allied an insurmountable will to perform with innovative use of technology to create a satisfying, thought-provoking virtual production of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. Piloted by the company’s founder Naama Zahavi-Ely, disparate components were recorded, assembled, and edited to construct a digital staging, still undergoing revision in advance of wider release in early 2021, that brought Gluck’s and Calzabigi’s drama to life more convincingly than some fully-staged productions manage to do.
Placing the opera’s action in settings evoked by her own and Tirtza Zahavi’s nature photography and elements of Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych in oil known as The Garden of Earthly Delights, Zahavi-Ely’s direction and video editing lent the production admirable Classical eloquence, renouncing the sorts of senseless melodrama, so contrary to the composer’s and librettist’s intentions, that mar some stagings. The work of stage director Benjamin Spierman and production/stage manager Deborah Jo Knopik-Barrett yielded natural but discernibly expressive movement, complemented by Eric Lamp’s attractive modern-dress costume designs. The conditions under which this production was planned and curated are temporary, but the implications of the shrewd use of resources that it exhibited are lasting.
Conducting from the harpsichord, Opera in Williamsburg’s Music Director Jorge Parodi replicated the production’s urbane ethos in the musical performance. The Maestro’s accompaniment of secco recitatives was sensibly paced, maintaining momentum without rushing, and his tempi in instrumental and vocal numbers, particularly the Overture and dances, limned the gravitas of the music whilst wholly avoiding plodding sentimentality. Orchestral playing was reliably polished, the wind parts executed with unerring panache. The precision of ensemble achieved by the musicians would be commendable in the context of any performance, but it was in this virtual reading truly remarkable. Ensuring that the listener’s attention was always focused on the marvels of Gluck’s score, not on the technological wizardry of their recording of it, Parodi’s and the orchestra’s work was worthy of myth.
Consisting of the splendid quartet of soprano Kinneret Ely, mezzo-soprano Alison Cheeseman, tenor Pavel Suliandziga, and baritone Suchan Kim, the chorus sang with extraordinary balance and clarity. They began Act One with an account of ‘Ah! se intorno a quest’urna funesta’ that established an atmosphere of despair. Vividly contrasted, their forceful singing of ‘Chi mai dell’Erebo’ in Act Two was therefore all the more exciting. In subsequent scenes, the young voices intoned ‘Vieni a’ regni del riposo’ and ‘Torna, o bella, al tuo consorte’ dulcetly, projecting involvement in rather than mere comment on the drama. It is Gluck’s writing for the chorus that lends Orfeo ed Euridice much of its emotional potency, as well as its Classical authenticity, and Opera in Williamsburg’s performance offered choral singing of the necessary but hardly ubiquitous majesty.
Amore ed il sposo doloroso: soprano Laura León as Amore (left) and countertenor Nicholas Tamagna as Orfeo (right) in Opera in Williamsburg’s virtual production of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, 15 December 2020
[Image © by Opera in Williamsburg]
With the well-meaning but too frequently ill-executed intention of bringing mythological accuracy to the part, modern productions of Orfeo ed Euridice sometimes assign the rôle of Amore to boy singers. Edith Hamilton would perhaps have approved of this trend, but the male Amore was written for and first sung by a female soprano, Marianna Bianchini, a noted exponent of bravura rôles in operas by Hasse, Jommelli, and Sacchini. Opera in Williamsburg followed Gluck’s example by engaging soprano Laura León to depict Amore, here presented as female. There was an appropriate suggestion of deus-ex-machina intervention in León’s delivery of ‘T’assiste Amore!’ in Act One, and she sang the aria ‘Gli sguardi trattieni’ with bright tone and easy command of the range. In Amore’s scene with Orfeo in Act Three, León imparted the deity’s sincere concern for the parted lovers, and the soprano’s voicing of ‘Talor dispera’ in the opera’s final scene sparkled. The I Dream of Jeannie mannerisms with which Amore’s conjurings were enacted seemed out of character even for the impish young god, but León sang and acted charismatically, lacking only a genuine trill.
La sposa perduta: soprano Kearstin Piper Brown as Euridice in Opera in Williamsburg’s virtual production of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, 15 December 2020
[Image © by Opera in Williamsburg]
Dressed by Lamp in gowns that would not have seemed out of place in Jacqueline Kennedy’s closet, soprano Kearstin Piper Brown’s Euridice exuded physical and vocal opulence. Euridice is in some performances a bloodless cipher but in this staging was a commanding presence in the drama, a woman who merited Orfeo’s death-defying devotion. In her first scene with Orfeo, Piper Brown’s Euridice blossomed with renewed life and feminity, but the joy of the lovers’ reunion was brief. Wrenchingly conveying Euridice’s dismay at her beloved’s seeming indifference, Piper Brown phrased ‘No, più cara è a me la morte’ with anguished pathos. Euridice’s aria ‘Che fiero momento!’ is one of Gluck’s most progressive pieces, anticipating Beethoven’s Fidelio and Weber’s Der Freischütz and Euryanthe, and Piper Brown possessed every quality required to sing the music superbly, rising to gleaming top A♭s. Her enunciation of ‘La gelosia strugge e divora’ in the final scene radiated jubilation. Gluck unquestionably wrote music of greater consequence for Orfeo than for Euridice, but Piper Brown’s vocalism elevated Euridice’s status both in this Orfeo ed Euridice and in comparisons with Gluck’s later heroines.
Una canzonetta di speranza: countertenor Nicholas Tamagna as Orfeo in Opera in Williamsburg’s virtual production of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, 15 December 2020
[Image © by Opera in Williamsburg]
Created in the opera’s 1762 première by renowned castrato Gaetano Guadagni, Orfeo is one of Eighteenth-Century opera’s most enduring characterizations. Opera in Williamsburg’s production was distinguished by a dazzling portrayal of the rôle by countertenor Nicholas Tamagna. Wielding total stylistic acumen that encompassed effortless tones at the top of the stave and an impeccable trill, he paid homage to Guadagni by performing Orfeo’s music artfully but without artifice, the voice confidently meeting every demand of the music. His despondent cries of ‘Euridice!’ in the opening scene penetrated both the choral lamentations and the listener’s heart, palpably evincing the profundity of the despair at the core of his voicing of the aria ‘Chiamo il mio ben così.’ The scene with Amore reawakened Orfeo’s hope, and ‘Che disse! Che ascoltai!’ throbbed with astonishment and renewed energy.
The representation of the artist in conflict with the establishment in Orfeo’s journey to the underworld in Act Two spurred Tamagna to sing passages like ‘Deh! plactevi con me’ with poignant intensity, his voice assuming the enchanting mellifluence of Orfeo’s lyre. He sang the aria with chorus ‘Mille pene, ombre moleste’ and ‘Men tiranne, ah! voi sareste’ with disarming simplicity. The expressivity of Tamagna’s performance of the arioso ‘Che puro ciel, che chiaro sol’ was arresting, the beauty of his timbre rivaling Elysium’s wonders.
In the Act Three duetto with Euridice, Tamagna sang ‘Vieni, appaga il tuo consorte!’ with perceptible determination, Orfeo’s commitment to recovering Euridice from death’s clutches infusing the voice with a vein of steel. Following the breaking of the divine covenant and the second loss of Euridice, the steel was swept away by a deluge of dismay in ‘Ahimè! Dove trascorsi.’ Tamagna’s riveting singing of the widely-known ‘Che farò senza Euridice?’ justified the aria’s familiarity, but he was no less moving in Orfeo’s subsequent scene with Amore and the final reunion with Euridice. In the unlikely setting of a virtual production, Tamagna joined the ranks of history’s preeminent interpreters of Gluck’s and Calzabigi’s Orfeo.
The 1693 issuance of letters patent chartering the College of William and Mary in the colony of Virginia and John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s investment in the restoration and long-term preservation of Colonial Williamsburg in the 1920s were bold experiments. Perpetuating the Old Dominion’s venturesome spirit, Opera in Williamsburg’s decision to create opera during this season of worldwide hardship and heartbreak was also a courageous experiment. Like its fellow institutions in Virginia’s colonial capital, Opera in Williamsburg forged success with ingenuity, uniting artists and audiences via technology and a drive to seek refuge in music. Enjoyable and uplifting in its own right, this virtual production of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice offered an invigorating reminder that, through calamities of earth and men, opera endures.