Monday, September 10, 2012

Orpheus Film Festival: Gluck's Orfeo

Gluck's Orfeo effected a reform of opera in the late 18th Century. The composer likely engaged for this reform the myth of the mankind's greatest musician, Orpheus, for the purpose of returning to music's roots. But, Gluck and the librettist, Calzabigi, use the opera to articulate the Enlightenment's most sincere expressions of human emotions. Patricia Howard calls Gluck's Orfeo "in every sense a child of its time."

Orfeo's most engaging narrative move, in my opinion, is Gluck/Calzabigi's decision to equip Eurydice with emotions and impulses. Ovid and Vergil, who had told the story classically, focused on Orpheus's heroism and failure. Gluck's Eurydice encounters in her heroic husband a perplexing inability to communicate, one who refuses to answer her questions. This Orpheus is a man whose heroism is insufficient to retain his bride a second time. She begs for communication and willingly terminates her rejoinders, when she surmises that life with Orpheus will mean an existence of adled communication.

Other narratives work with the same awkwardness in Orpheus. Offenbach's self-important musician is as much to blame as is Eurydice herself, she of the wandering eye — and Orpheus can try as he will, but he won't easily recover his bride. Sarah Ruhl's masterpiece has Eurydice perplexed when Orpheus arrives and assumes his bride will be ecstatic to return to his world, a place where she is beginning to fear alienation long before he arrives. Indeed, Ruhl's Eurydice meets her deceased father in the Underworld and hopes to renew communication with him on new terms. Then Orpheus intervenes.

Harry Kupfer's production of Gluck's Orfeo was produced at the English National Opera, Covent Garden in 1991. Jochen Kowalski's virtuosity notwithstanding, newcomers to this opera may be surprised at what comes out when the male alto opens his mouth. The bold staging of this production realizes an entirely new interpretation of the mythological scene. The musical hero's journey to recover his bride is, here, the emotional depression of a bereaved lover trying to recover in a psychiatric hospital. The Italian libretto is performed on a very modern stage (for 1991), complete with close-circuit television cameras, a rotating set, and a Fender guitar.

P. Howard, ed., C.W. Gluck, Orfeo, Cambridge Opera Handbooks (Cambridge and London: Cambridge University Press, 1981)

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