Orphée et Eurydice, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, ROH, September 2015

It seems the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice is flavour of the year. Monteverdi’s Orfeo appeared at the Roundhouse in January in an artless staging by the Royal Opera, before the BBC Proms gave it a beautifully elegant semi-staging under John Eliot Gardiner this summer. Now it’s the Royal Opera’s turn to succeed, this time with Gluck’s 1774 French version, expanded from his original 1762 Italian chamber opera to fill the larger space of the Paris Opera.

Out of Hades, all images ROH/ Bill Cooper

Out of Hades, all images ROH/ Bill Cooper

Unlike Monteverdi, Gluck uses only three solo singers — Orpheus, Eurydice and Amour — and his French version turned the role of Orpheus from alto castrato to high tenor. Such singers are in short supply, but for the Royal Opera’s first performance — more than 240 years after its Paris premiere! — they engaged Juan Diego Flores. Well known at Covent Garden for his brilliant singing of Rossini and Donizetti, Flores gave an outstanding performance of Orpheus, full of vocal anguish and yearning, and supported with superb musicality by John Eliot Gardiner conducting the English Baroque Soloists. When Lucy Crowe as Eurydice finally enters late in Act II her lovely tone of voice matched the lightness of the music before acquiring greater depth in her insecurity during the journey out of Hades. And with Amanda Forsythe singing a very pretty Amour, and Gardiner’s Monteverdi Choir in beautiful voice the musical side of this production is something not to be missed on any account.

One glance is death

One glance is death

In opera productions these days one never knows quite what to expect on stage, so I’m delighted to report on a complete absence of AK47s, submachine guns and black clad SWAT teams guarding the gates of Hades. Indeed directors John Fulljames and Hofesh Schechter, who doubled as choreographer, have created a highly original and very clever effect by placing the orchestra on stage, separating Hades from the living world in Acts I and II. Occasionally the section holding the orchestra rose to allow passage for dancers and chorus underneath, and after the overture three tiers appeared — chorus, orchestra, and trombones at the top — a feature repeated in different form with dancers at the end.


Furies in front

The dance aspect of this opera is essential, and the Act II interlude with the furies — extracted from Gluck’s ballet Don Juan — followed by the well-known pastoral music for the dance of the Blessed Spirits was beautifully realised. But the abundance of dance music at the end of the opera, with its wildly and energetically flowing choreography, invites cuts. It overbalanced the effect of the glorious trio, which provides a more tranquil ending for an opera that speaks to the ultimate futility of crossing the waters of death in both directions.

Blessed spirits

Blessed spirits behind

Superb music and singing, and a hugely imaginative production eschewing cliché in favour of abstraction, only spoiled by an excess of choreographically ill-defined happiness at the end.

Performances continue on various dates until October 3, with a BBC Radio 3 broadcast on 24 October at 18:30 — for details click here.

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