Saturday, August 1, 2009

My deserted island DVDs: Kasarova as Gluck's Orphée

Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice (Munich 2003 - I Bolton/ Kasarova, Joshua, York):
If there was a single point in time where opera shifted from the Baroque into the Classical period, it was when Christoph Willibald Gluck premiered his operatic take on the myth of Orpheus in Vienna in 1762. Rather than being a string of spectacular arias to show off the vocal ability of his star singers, Orfeo ed Euridice is all about story telling. Every note of the music is there to relate the text, and to conjure up a convincing atmosphere in the audience's head.

This French version of the opera benefited from some judicious editing by Hector Berlioz, who will forever hold a favorable place in the heart of the mezzo-phil opera lovers for his tailoring of the title role to the
voice of the extraordinary soprano sfogato, Pauline Garcia - Viardot, guaranteeing a juicy trouser role for the deep voiced mezzo-sopranos of subsequent generations (and at least one opera in the standard repertoire that is completely free of any solo male voice!).
Most of us would already be familiar of the story, I think. The opera opens with the grief-stricken Orphée (the famous Thracian musician, Orpheus, whose musical language is said to be so eloquent that trees and boulders would uproot themselves to follow him around, assuring him the title of the most hated by gardeners on the lively side of the Styx) lamenting the death (by snake bite) of his wife, Eurydice, as the sympathetic crowd look on. His mournful melody is so devastating that Jupiter sends Cupid down to offer him a deal: Orphée will be allowed to enter Hades and try to convince the god of the dead to return Eurydice to him - though he mustn’t, under any circumstance, look back at her (nor can he tell her why) until after they have both crossed the Styx back to the land of the living... or she will be lost to him forever. The musical Orphée proves himself up to any task but coping with his wife’s tears (the lass has a temper tantrum when her beloved husband repeatedly refuses to even look at her). If you want to know how it ends, you’ll have to buy or rent this DVD to find out (the myth of Orpheus has many different endings... And, actually, even this performance shows 2 different ones. The opera ends one way and the ballet ends another way).

(Clip posted by pockhair)
This production at the Bavarian State Opera is staged by Nigel Lowery and Amir Hosseinpour as
a minimalistic theater that does a good job of focusing on the wonderfully theatrical cast and getting across the psyche of the story. It doesn't seem to set the story in any specific time or place, which is just as well considering the timelessness of the original myth. And when you’ve got a Vesselina Kasarova as your main man who has to remain on the stage for more than 75% of the length of the time, stage props are mere luxuries rather than necessities. The lass can do with just her eyes and a little turn of her glances what many can't achieve with a stage-ful of dragons and laser pyrotechnic. I’m afraid I lack a good enough vocabulary to describe how effective Kasarova is as a male character in an opera. Unlike some other mezzos who require second or third looks to confirm their true gender when they are in a male suit, Kasarova never looks or acts butch or manly. She is, rather, something harder to pin down...

One doesn’t fully grasp what androgeny is until one has experienced this woman in a trouser role. She transcends the notion of gender and just simply is Orphée... whatever he is - male, female, gay, lesbian, transgender - it doesn’t matter. You know he loves his Eurydice and literally runs through a whole gamut of emotions in the course of his supernatural adventure. Many opera singers can act well to the live audience, but there aren’t many who can deliver the drama to both the live audience and those looking in via the television cameras! I don’t know how she does it, but it is uncanny how Kasarova can always find the camera to focus her eyes on at key moments of the performance... without ever abandoning the live audience.

There are quirky humors infused in the staging and not all of them can be easily understood. All the same, they don’t (or perhaps I should say that up against the charisma of Kasarova, they fail to) distract from the running pathos of the story. I actually find it nice to get to laugh a bit at the notion of ever running into a polar bear in the Valley of the Blessed. If humans can have a happy afterlife, well, why can’t animals too? It keeps the show from being too serious, which isn’t a bad practice when staging an opera from the baroque - classical period.

Supporting Kasarova are the marvelous Eurydice of the Welsh soprano, Rosemary Joshua, and the delightfully spunky Amour (Cupid) of Deborah York. The Orphée - Eurydice duets are as much the highlights of the show as Orphée’s famous 2 arias are. The chemistry between the lovers is palpable and nothing is overdone (no unnecessary nudity or sex scene here). I must confess to being a little befuddled about Amour’s performance, though. I’m not sure that York sings the whole role in this DVD (it seems to be spliced from a few different performances, and one of them has this curly brunette singing Amour’s final act lines from the pit. The curly brunette also appears on the stage for the curtain call but isn’t given credit in the cast).

In the pit with the Orchestra of the Bavarian State Opera is the delightfully supportive maestro Ivor Bolton. I think he could have conjure up more fire and doom in the famous Hades scene, but that is really a minor complaint considering how ably he keeps the story moving and his perfect pace-setting during
Orphée's famous lamentation, J'ai perdu mon Euridice (I've lost my Eurydice). If there is any quirk in Gluck's composition, it is how he assigned this supposedly mournful tune to the bright and cheerful key of C major... Many an able conductor have fallen into the trap of setting such a brisk tempo to the tune that not a shred of sorrow is left around to express itself in the opera's supposedly most tragic moment. Some, on the other hand, are so careful to preserve the sorrow that the end up dragging the tempo to the point where even the most sympathetic of listeners have to fight off sleep rather than tear half way through the thing. Here... it is simply perfect.

(clip posted by Arashi110)
There are a few good DVDs of Orphée et Eurydice around, but this one tops my list by a long shot so far. That isn't to say that the other DVDs aren't good... They just don't communicate to me anywhere nearly as convincingly as this one does. If only Studio Farao could have put in a little extra like cast interview and stuff...


Geisslein said...

Just a little morning hello from germany...I´ve 2 weeks holiday now,but must spend my time at home to work a little bit at my house (*sigh*). Hope your week will be a great one! btw: I´ve made a seagull picture for you, you can find it at my blog! Hope you´ll like it :o) Greetings from cloudy germany, geisslein

Georg said...

Hallo Smorgy,

You did truly a great job on Willibald Gluck's opera. The Eurodice aria is one of my favorites. I have even a male version, sung by Mr.Pavarotti.

There is just one point I beg to differ. The story told by Gluck is part of the classical Greek mythology, imagined about 2500 years ago. We have to bow in homage to this and by simple respect refrain from making it "palatable" for today's music consumers.

Naturally, this comes at a price, too. It is cheaper to find a blue polyester shirt from Wal-Mart for Ms Kasarova than to dress everybody in classical Greek garments.


Anonymous said...

thank you for this one, Smorg!

reminds me of all the miraculous details of why I love this production and this casting - I am really having difficulties with other Orphées after this one. It may be different for coming generations, but I don't think anything can ever top this particular Orphée experience for me.

Though partly I believe that this interpretation will to be prove just as universal and timeless as the story of the opera.

Smorg said...

Hallo Geisslein, Georgy & Anik!
Thanks very much for stopping by. :o) Sorry I've been away from the computer a lot lately and am running behind on things. Very glad to hear that you enjoyed this post, though. It's really a deadly addictive DVD for me.

O.. and I don't think I'd mind Kasarova walking around in a toga either. ;o) The gal is so mesmerizing on the stage I bet she could putt Orfeo off even if he has to wear Hawaiian leaves and do a hula dance during the lamentation... to ukelele accompaniment from the pit... (just kidding!). ;o)

Thanks a bunch for the great shot of the marauding gull, Geisslein, and thanks a bunch for keeping me company in the 'can't get enough of VK-Orphee' boat, too, Anik. And thanks to Georgy, I'll now have to go and hunt down the Pavarotti Orfeo recording or I'll go the way of the curious cats! ;o)

Hope everyone is having a good summer!

Smorgy :o)

Purity said...

What a fantastic review, if I wasn't already hooked on this DVD I would be now! and I have to agree with "Kasarova can always find the camera to focus her eyes on at key moments of the performance... without ever abandoning the live audience." Indeed when in the audience she always seems to be looking right into you... of course I know she can't be, not all of us simultaneously! I think it is just an artefact of that incredible 'can't take your eyes off her' stage presence.

Hope things pick up for you soon Smorgy. Hard to believe someone like you hasn't got a place in Obama's America!!