The Canadian Opera Company closes its 2010/11 season on a high note with Orfeo ed Euridice, its first-ever production of an opera by Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-87).  The production created by Canadian director Robert Carsen for the Chicago Lyric Opera is beautiful in its stark simplicity and the singing by the cast and playing of the COC Orchestra under Harry Bicket is exquisite.

Gluck’s opera, the first of his so-called “reform operas”, exists in two versions--the original version in Italian that premiered in Vienna in 1762 and the second version written in French and expanded to suit French tastes that premiered in Paris in 1774.  We in Toronto are quite fortunate to have had the chance to see both versions performed by Opera Atelier--the Italian version in 1997 and the French version in 2007.  The French version with its major expansion of the ballet sequences is eminently suited to Opera Atelier’s aesthetic of integrating dance into the opera.  The Italian version, in contrast, is deliberately more severe, following Gluck’s goal of restoring opera to its origins as sung drama.

Carsen’s production reflects the severity of Gluck’s vision in Tobias Hoheisel’s set that consists only of a raked gravel-covered rectangle backed by a blank cyclorama, reminiscent of the minimalist productions of the Wagner operas by Wieland Wagner in the 1950s.  Carsen has updated the action to sometime in the present and to somewhere where women still wear headscarves daily.  Hoheisel’s palette throughout is entirely black, white and grey, with the only colour coming from the the flowers strewn on Euridice’s grave or the yellow of the flames seen in all three acts.  The austerity of the production is reinforced by Peter van Praet’s lighting which set low in the wings causes the singers to cast shadows across the entire stage or through frequent backlighting that makes us see much of the action in silhouette.  Both techniques, of course, underscore the imagery of the opera about a man who travels among the shades of the underworld to bring back his dead wife.

Carsen has made the work more abstract than Gluck’s original.  Gluck’s librettist Raniero de’ Calzabigi did not follow the Greek myth when he gave the story a happy ending.  So Carsen is justified in modifying the story further.  His Orpheus is no longer a semi-divine musician, but rather an Everyman responding to the death of a beloved wife.  He has no lute or musical instrument of any kind.  The one object associated with him is a switchblade that represents his recurring despair and desire to take his own life.  He subdues the shades of Hades not through the magic of his song but through the intensity of the love it represents.

Counter-tenor Lawrence Zazzo, last seen as Oberon in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2009, gives a magnificent performance vocally and dramatically.  His voice is rich, strong and full of expressiveness and his acting is as highly detailed as that of a fine actor.  Though Harry Bicket’s intent was to conduct the work without breaks for applause except at the ends of acts, the audience could not restrain itself after Zazzo’s moving account of “Che farò senza Euridice?” in Act 3 and burst into bravos and applause.

Isabel Bayrakdarian, seen earlier this year as Pamina in Die Zauberflöte, is a radiant Euridice, darkness beneath the bright tone of  her voice well-suited to conveying the character’s confusion and distress.  Ambur Braid, a new member of the COC Ensemble Studio, was a genial crystal-voiced Amore, dressed to reflect Orfeo’s inner self in Act 1 and as Euridice’s inner self in Act 3.

Under Harry Bicket, the COC Orchestra made their modern instruments sound  as much like period instruments as is possible and played with the same precision and lightness of touch as the finest period ensembles.  It was almost impossible to believe the orchestra also plays Verdi and Wagner, but then one of the late Richard Bradshaw’s great achievements was to make the COC Orchestra so adaptable.  As usual, the contributions of the COC Chorus were beautifully judged and full of emotion.  The 2011/12 season opens with another Robert Carsen production of Gluck, Iphigénie en Tauride.  If it is as deeply considered as his Orfeo, the next season should begin as nobly as the present season as ended.



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