Friday, January 11, 2008


Gluck's 'Orfeo ed Euridice' at the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre in Vilnius tonight - premiered only last October. What a production! It's breath-taking - and very daring!

I don't know why I always think of it as a baroque opera when it's firmly written in the classical period (I know that there are at least two baroque operas based on the same story, by Monteverdi and, well, it's 'La Morte de Orfeo, by Landi - not quite the same topic). It's ...just so baroque, with its shortness, its recitatives and da capo arias, its baroque style dances.

The story is the usual; Orfeo has lost his wife, Euridice, and goes looking for her in the underworld. He finds her, but is not allowed to look at her; when he does, she dies again. Cue famous aria. And a few bits in between. Actually, it seems I know the opera quite well.

There have been many performance difficulties over the time; the role of Orfeo has been variously sung by an alto castrato (for whom it was written), a soprano castrato (which threw everything out of balance), usually by women pretending to be men, but this time it was a counter tenor, 25-year-old Alon Harari from Israel. Kind of complicated, no? There are also questions over some of the pieces, especially the overture which is a bit weak.

It seems that Jonas Jurasas, the Lithuanian producer, is full of ideas. They got round the overture problem by playing it in the foyer while the audience was still ambling to their seats.


there is a general noise, which becomes louder and louder, screechier and screechier, as the curtains open to ...

the ruins of the World Trade Centre, where a crowd of desperate onlookers is being held back by firemen and tap. More firemen storm the stage from the audience side. The music begins. Out of the middle of the audience comes a desperate cry 'Euridice!' And again, and again. What a start!

Orfeo storms to the stage, the people around him give him pictures of loved ones, but he does not find his Euridice among them. Some diaphanous women dance around him. Amor appears wearing a hard hat, floating on air on the right hand side of the stage. Some musicians play on the stage. There's a large black box in the middle of the WTC ruins which looks like both the Ka'bah in Mecca, or a bit like the memorial to the holocaust in Vienna. This moves in and out and around, and forms a stage within a stage. In between firemen keep dashing across the stage.

The furies scene is very colourful, with some dancers dressed in red representing fire, and others with wild and wonderful wigs as the furies. The blessed spirits are dressed in calm beiges, yellows and greys, and are very calm.

Near the end the conductor dashes on the stage, picks up Amor's arrow, and ends the opera using it as a baton.

Alon Harari was generally great, though by far the best moment was right at the beginning. I wonder how his voice would project to the end of the theatre. This role is a monumental task - basically the opera is a monologue for one, with a few words thrown in by Amor and an aria or two by Euridice, who spends most of the time dead. I thought that in the famous aria 'Che faro senza Euridice' he was too brisk, and not heart-broken enough - maybe he was tired by then. (Incidentally, if he is dressed like a builder, might it be an idea to paint some muscles on him?)

Similarly the orchestra was far too brisk in the dance of the blessed spirits; it launched itself into it, slowed down for the middle bit, and then shot off again on the repeat. I wondered if the flautist had breathing challenges there - there were odd breaks (I play a junior version and I have the same problem - but I ain't have had the professional training). It was funny that they played taped birdsong over the theme the first time it came around.

Asmik Grigorian, another Lithuanian singer studying in London, seems to have changed the timbre of her voice - I had a memory of it being brighter a year or two ago (she could sing very high and very loud), but this time it seemed warmer. Maybe it's the pitch of the arias, but in any case it was very nice. Her rendition of the aria 'Che fiero momento', where she expresses her grief at Orfeo's apparent infidelity, was masterful.

Now, the precision of classical music is not usually the orchestra's strength, and as usual the winds let the band down. The playing could have been much more precise, and at the same time emotional - 'and now again, with feeling'! A few dynamics here and there, sort of thing.

The choir, unfortunately, deserves particular comment. The movements were nice, the costumes were nice, but oh dear, oh dear, the singing! Yes, all the notes were in the right places. But there's a difference between the furies and, say, the blessed spirits. If I had been the choirmaster, I would have made the furies spit out every word individually, spit, spit, spit - aggression, aggression, aggression! Everything was sung the same, whether it involved grief, happiness, or fury. Or was the choir meant to be the BBC commentators and analysts?

If you are not an opera fanatic, or music aficinado, do go and see the show - you'll enjoy it - nice music, interesting action. You may think I'm quibbling. I just want to get high quality into the opera house.

Anyway, boring it was not!

(Picture from the LNOBT)