CHRISTOPH WILLIBALD VON GLUCK (1714 – 1787): Orfeo ed Euridice [1762 Vienna version] — Megan Moore (Orfeo), Susannah Stewart (Euridice), Molly Quinn (Amore); Carolina Choir, The Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle; Lorenzo Muti, conductor [Niccoló Muti, Stage Director; Lauren Carmen, Costume Designer; The Carolina Theatre, Durham, North Carolina, USA; Saturday, 25 March 2023]
Opera is a celebration of excesses, one of which is a tendency among the art form’s most fervent admirers to assess works, performers, and performances with absolutes, proclaiming superlatives when discussing virtues and vices would be more productive. Justified though recognition of his genius emphatically is, citing Mozart as the defining musical innovator of the second half of the Eighteenth Century both belittles the work of other noteworthy composers and denies Mozart’s achievements the context required in order to properly appreciate them. In evaluations of the evolution of opera between Händel’s final contributions to the genre and the sublime scores of Mozart’s maturity, several of Christoph Willibald von Gluck’s operas are rightly esteemed as catalysts in the transition from Baroque to Classicism and early Romanticism. To suggest that Gluck’s ‘reform operas’ are without contemporary peers as groundbreaking works is an affront to Gluck and composers like Tommaso Traetta and Antonio Sacchini, but, even to Twenty-First-Century ears acquainted with operatic styles and innovations spanning six centuries, the operas that inspired Gluck’s reputation as a trailblazer still inhabit unique soundworlds more than two centuries after their composer’s death, shaped by music in which the tragédies en musique of Lully, Charpentier, and Rameau collide with the Romantic operas of Beethoven, Weber, and Berlioz.
Despite the persisting temptation to exaggerate the event’s significance at the expense of undervaluing the importance of similar works including Carl Heinrich Graun’s 1752 Orfeo and Ferdinando Bertoni’s 1776 setting of the same libretto by Ranieri de’ Calzabigi utilized by Gluck, the première of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice at Vienna’s Burgtheater on 5 October 1762, was unquestionably a momentous occasion, the Habsburg dynasty having bern represented on that first night by as illustrious an opera lover as the Empress herself, Maria Theresa. Casting renowned castrato Gaetano Guadagni, whose notoriety in London in the 1740s and ’50s encompassed both work with Händel and salacious libidinous escapades, as Orfeo, Gluck retained a vital component of the Baroque tradition, perhaps making his efforts at returning opera seria to the kinship with Greek drama envisioned by early exponents of the genre more palatable to the Viennese audience. Gluck’s later revisions to the score, the most drastic being the 1774 version for Paris in which the hero’s music was reassigned from alto castrato to high tenor, reflect both that his quest to liberate opera from Baroque excesses metamorphosed as it progressed and that even a committed reformer bowed to the necessity of conforming to prevailing tastes, at least in part.
From Jacopo Peri’s and Giulio Caccini’s Euridice (1600) [in addition to collaborating with Peri, Caccini penned his own Euridice, first performed in 1602] and Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (1607) to Matthew Aucoin’s Eurydice, staged to considerable acclaim in the Metropolitan Opera’s 2021 – 2022 Season, Orphic subjects have been popular with composers and audiences, mythology’s tale of a musician using his lyre to open paths that were previously closed to him transformed into an ode to music’s capacities to heal individuals and communities. [Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice returns to the Metropolitan Opera in the 2023 – 2024 Season, with Durham-born countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo as Orfeo.] In both subject and the score’s musical dimensions, the 1762 version of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice was an ideal work for The Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle’s inaugural foray into performing opera. Staging the performance in Durham’s historic Carolina Theatre was largely successful but also fitfully exasperating. The theatre’s warm, natural acoustic was fortuitous, especially with the orchestra on stage and the principals either on the floor or directly in front of the instrumentalists, but the building’s multi-purpose functionality presented challenges, the most disheartening of which was the first half-hour of the performance being marred by persistent lobby noise. Moreover, whilst concessions sales are undoubtedly an important source of revenue and are appropriate for the attached cinema, the constant crunching of patrons enjoying popcorn was distracting and an unfortunate disservice to the performers. These caveats notwithstanding, the performance was an impressive first effort that inspired the hope that opera will be included in future COT seasons.
COT’s performance of Orfeo ed Euridice was a near-miraculous celebration of all that can be achieved by teams of musicians dedicating the best of their artistry to a common goal. Brought to the stage in only five days, without benefit of an in-depth Sitzprobe and extensive technical rehearsals, the performance was directed with imaginative use of space and the auditorium’s architecture, the latter employed by COT’s Executive Director and Principal Conductor Niccoló Muti to position a contingent of the chorus in the tier of boxes near the stage. Lauren Carmen’s simple but evocative costume designs would likely have been more effective had the lighting been brighter, but the flowing lines and contrasting colors and textures lent modernity and Classical poise to Muti’s storytelling. Reconfiguring Gluck’s three acts into two, the production made Orfeo’s descent into Hades a tempestuous voyage. Muti’s direction imposed nothing upon the drama that was not supported by score and libretto, fashioning a staging that exuded sincerity that is sometimes not found in more intricate productions.
COT’s Artistic Director Lorenzo Muti conducted Gluck’s score with discernible understanding of the style, avoiding the mistakes of approaching Orfeo ed Euridice as though it were late Händel or early Mozart. Aptly, the style of Mondonville was recalled far more frequently than that of Mozart in Muti’s pacing, which relied upon moderate tempi and unexaggerated cadences. COT’s musicians played Gluck’s music superbly, their intonation laudably accurate throughout the performance. Their aural balance benefited the strings more than the winds, the flutes intermittently practically inaudible, but the ensemble’s sound bloomed in the auditorium. The absence of harpsichord continuo was regrettable in passages of recitative, the lack of linking music among the plodding chords causing the extended scene for Orfeo and Euridice at the beginning of Act Three to seem interminable. Nonetheless, Muti ensured that the performance’s pace maintained momentum but afforded passages of repose like Orfeo’s exquisite ‘Che puro ciel’ time in which to reveal their allures. The opera’s vivid Sinfonia and the familiar Dance of the Blessed Spirits, played as a de facto entr’acte, were beautifully done, and the music for the furies brayed with infernal intensity. Interpretive subtleties are born of long acquaintance, but weeks of rehearsals could not have yielded a more musical account of Orfeo ed Euridice than Muti and the COT accomplished in this performance.
Comprised of students from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Carolina Choir sang Gluck’s music for chorus with impeccable musicality, professionalism, and preparedness. Whether depicting Thracian peasants mourning Euridice’s death, menacing Furies, or disembodied souls, their sounds demonstrated the excellence of Susan Klebanow’s training. ‘Ah! se intorno a quest’urna funesta’ in Act One movingly imparted the despair felt by Euridice’s companions, and the choral responses to Orfeo’s outpourings of grief were voiced with feeling and finesse. Compelling throughout the opera, Gluck’s writing for the chorus is uniquely powerful in Act Two, and Carolina Choir’s elocution elucidated every syllable and sentiment of the progression of choruses from ‘Chi mai dell’Erebo’ to ‘Vieni a’ regni del riposo.’ Their singing of ‘Torna, o bella, al tuo consorte’ was enthralling, and the choir’s work in Act Three was as dramatically impactful as it was musically entrancing. The sopranos and contraltos outnumbering their lower-voiced counterparts in the choir’s ranks occasionally caused the ensemble to be slightly top-heavy, but the tenors met the challenges of their music in Act Three intrepidly.
Amore, the opera’s deus ex machina and this performance’s beacon in the darkness, was depicted not as the male Cupid of mythology but as an unmistakably feminine figure, animated with delightful brio by soprano Molly Quinn. In her first appearance in Act One, this was an Amore whose cheeky vivacity was little affected by Euridice’s tragic demise and Orfeo’s mourning. Her opening pronouncements to the despondent Orfeo were comforting and cheering, and Quinn sang the aria ‘Gli sguardi trattieni’ effervescently, her timbre and vibrato reminiscent of Toti dal Monte. She returned in Act Three to reward Orfeo’s persistence by reuniting him with the errant Euridice, voicing each line of recitative with clarity of diction and purpose. Quinn sang Amore’s part in the final trio with boundless joy and a sly suggestion of self-satisfaction, the voice shimmering in the musical glow of the opera’s lieto fine.
Surviving the unenviable task of motionlessly portraying Euridice’s corpse in Act One, soprano Susannah Stewart subsequently emerged unscathed as a disenchanted denizen of the underworld. Finally heard in Act Three, Stewart articulated Euridice’s discourse with Orfeo insightfully, the character’s growing confusion, frustration, and fear credibly evinced. Her performance of the impassioned aria ‘Che fiero momento’ was one of the evening’s musical pinnacles, the soprano’s technique and temperament viscerally communicating the piece’s volatile emotions. Affection permeated Stewart’s phrasing of ‘Grande, o Numi è il dono vostro!’ in the duet with Orfeo, the tone gleaming, and each word in the final trio was sung with palpable exultation.
There are pages in Orfeo ed Euridice in which the opera is virtually a solo cantata for Orfeo. To an even greater extent than in Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, the protagonist’s sorrow and determination to defy fate are participants in the drama as consequential as Orfeo and Euridice themselves. Depicting Orfeo not as an archetypal artist battling adversity but as a deeply sensitive youth devastated by the loss of his beloved, mezzo-soprano Megan Moore sang Gluck’s music with stylistic authority and tonal beauty. The recitatives at the beginning of Act One were uttered with emotional specificity, ‘Amici, qual lamento aggrava il mio dolor’ dejected and ‘Lasciatemi!’ anguished. The sequence of brief arias—’Chiamo il mio ben così,’ ‘Cerco il mio ben così,’ and ‘Piango il mio ben così’—persuasively manifested the stages of Orfeo’s grieving and anger, only one false entry betraying the performance’s hurried preparation. ‘Deh! placatevi con me’ with chorus and the arias ‘Mille pene, ombre moleste’and ‘Men tiranne, ah! voi sareste’ in Act Two further projected Orfeo’s resilience and reliance upon music as a source of solace.
Moore’s dulcet singing of the arioso ‘Che puro ciel! che chiaro sol!’ limned the sense of wonder that gripped Orfeo, visually stimulated in this performance by whimsical, Julie Taymor-esque puppetry. In Act Three, the recitative ‘Vieni, segui i miei passi’ benefited from the unaffected directness of Moore’s delivery, a quality that also permeated the singer’s voicing of Orfeo’s charged words in the duet with Euridice. The famed aria ‘Che farò senza Euridice?’ was sung with beguiling simplicity, Moore preferring purity of line to ornamentation. Hesitant to trust in the permanence of Amore’s intervention, this Orfeo at last experienced—and expressed—happiness in the final trio. Like her colleagues in this performance, Moore brought an aura of catharsis to the opera’s final scene, Orfeo’s devotion to the power of music rewarded. The Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle’s faith in the viability of opera was rewarded, too, this performance of Orfeo ed Euridice affirming that the success of a performance is measured by its soul, not its scale.