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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Sweden – Friday 25 January – Orphée

Thanks to Tamara Beliaeva-Bohlin, we got tickets to the Royal Opera’s performance of Gluck’s Orphée (performed in the 1859 Berlioz version). Anne Sofie von Otter and Anna Larsson alternated in the title role—while we would have loved to hear Anne Sofie, Swedish contralto Anna Larsson was in the role that night, and did not disappoint. Interestingly, she’s also doing Erda during the same period at Kungliga Operan.

It was also interesting for me to see Gluck’s version of Orphée, since I’ll be conducting Monteverdi’s Orfeo in a production in Edmonton next November—quite different approaches to the story.

Although musically very strong, it was the production itself that was most interesting. Mats Ek, who is a choreographer, both directed (his first opera, we heard) and did the choreography.

The opera opens with the orchestra pit up and all orchestra members (male and female—the conductor, too) dressed in black suits, white shirts, long black ties, and black fedoras for the overture. At the end of the overture, the pit lowers and the curtain rises on the chorus and dancers, facing the back of the stage, again all in the same costume, except for Orphée, who only lacks the fedora, and whose hair is short, thin, and white (Kathryn said, ‘ratty comb-over’). The costumes and black and white set give the effect of a Magritte painting (with fedoras instead of bowler hats).

Anna Larsson is very tall and thin, so made a striking figure as she moved among the singers and dancers. Ek has everyone be very active (not just the 10 dancers), so the chorus has to move almost constantly and in quite complicated ways. They coped well and sang beautifully. The backdrop for this act is a large moon and gravestone—the sets throughout are minimalist, but very effective—as they sing their opening lament at the death of Eurydice. Larsson, of course, sings during most of the act—it’s a dominating role for the alto—and she was very moving.

When Amor (Jeanette Bjurling) appears to tell Orphée that he can go to the underworld to bring back Eurydice, she’s wrapped neck to ankles in grave wrappings like a mummy and carried around by four dancers, who set her down occasionally to sing (although she also sings while being carried around). This resulted in some giggles from the audience—also during bows at the end when she came out and hopped about with tiny little steps (usually with someone holding her arm for balance).

The second act opens on an extremely Hieronymus Bosch-like hell scene, with trap doors opening up and smoke rising from them. The chorus and dancers are now in nude body stockings (complete with sewn-on phalluses), some with the just the black pants on, some with just the jackets, and many with deformities from hunchbacks to enlarged hands or arms. Again, Ek has the chorus move in novel ways and the dancers in particular move and jump in and out of the pit.

When Orphée pleads to be allowed to bring back Eurydice, he’s accompanied by string quartet and harp in the Berlioz version—Tamara made her only appearance in the pit here, so it was a short night for her!

In the second scene, when the flute has an extended solo, Orphée and the chorus members move to the edge of the orchestra pit to watch the flute and applaud at the end of the solo. Eurydice (Lisa Larsson) finally returns.

During intermission we wandered around to people-watch, and whom did we see but Tõnu Kaljuste! We chatted briefly and it turned out he came over from Tallinn, Estonia, just for a day or two to see this production. The director is someone he will work with and he said (of the direction and movement), “It’s a new language—I love it!” One of his passions is the Nargen Opera Project Theatre, of which he’d dreamed for a number of years; it began in reality in 2004. Tõnu conducted Pro Coro with other choirs at two separate festivals in Toronto several years ago, so I met him there.

The 3rd Act set is just 3 large flats, one with the drawing of a chair, one with a lamp, and one with a door (all upside down). The chorus is now entirely in white bridal gowns (where both the men and women of the chorus/dancers were in suits or body stockings earlier, now all the males were, like the females, in the gowns) with stringy white hair (except for Orphée, of course). One part of the ballet has four of the male chorus members doing a short dance, including some “leaps,” with the largest chorus member in particular, and drawing laughter from the audience. After the chorus and ballet, the flats are flown away and the corresponding props (white armchair, lamp, and door) are brought on as Orphée begins to take Eurydice out of Hades. (Some unintended comedy since the tech person responsible for turning the lamp on and off as Orphée does was never on time). Eurydice (who by the way, is also in a gown, though distinct in style from all the rest, but the platinum blond hair is her own, and quite beautiful) is upset because Orphée will not look at her (he can’t, of course, or she’ll die again) and he finally becomes convinced that she no longer loves him, so he’d rather die. He looks at her and (of course), she dies, and then he sings in grief the best-known aria from the opera, J’ai perdu mon Eurydice (or it’s better known Italian version, Che farò senza Eurydice). He decides to kill himself to remain with her in Hades, but Amor returns to bring Eurydice back to life as a reward for his constant love, and we have a happy ending.

I can’t begin to describe all the scenic effects, dancing, movement, etc, but suffice it to say it was an inventive production, rich in symbolism (some of which I didn’t follow) and imagination. It was well sung and played, all in all quite a success. Many thanks to Tamara for the tickets.


Francis S. said...

I have to say I was a little disappointed in Anna Larsson - her big aria "Amor, viens rendre..." was great in the cadenza, but before that she seemed to have trouble manouvering her way through the difficult passages. Both Anna Larsson and Marianne Hellgren Staykov, who played Amor, were occasionally drowned out by the orchestra. But these are small complaints. The production was one of the most wonderfully conceived operas I've seen (not that I've seen that many, to be fair) - there was a great consistency to it, and Mats Ek got great performances out of all involved, stylized and weird and larger than life, but moving as well, and compelling. It worked so well as a whole - it made me think of Mark Morris' Dido and Aeneas, although this included the extra challenge of having the singers doing the movement and not just singing in the pit with dancers pantomiming on stage.

(You know one of the great things also is that opera is, comparatively, so cheap here in Sweden... although it may not have seemed that way with the exchange rates now. The house was sold out when I went...)

Richard said...

Anna Larsson's trouble in the aria may have been the night--or I might have been more forgiving! I would have loved to have heard Anne Sofie in the role as well.

Interesting you'd mention Mark Morris' Dido: I prepared the chorus (my former group Choral Arts in Seattle) for a performance with him about 12 or 13 years ago. I hadn't thought of it, but there certainly are similarities.

And yes, the more highly subsidized art in Europe in general makes it much more accessible to everyone. Would that it were possible in North America, too.

Francis S. said...

Yowza! You prepared the chorus for Mark Morris? You lucky dog - or at least I hope it was a good experience... I think that was about my all-time favorite performance.

Anyway, you can read my own thoughts on Mats Ek's Orphée here

Richard said...

Yes, it was a fun experience. A friend was the principal cellist for the NW Chamber Orchestra and they'd be doing Dido, and suggested I contact Morris about this, since they needed a chorus. I sent him a recording of my choir (Choral Arts) and he then called to say he like the sound of the choir and would be happy for us to do it.

This was for a production at the Meany Theatre at the UW in Seattle. Not too many rehearsals, since of course his company knew it well and he had his own conductor and soloists along. She (can't remember her name) prepared us and then we had a couple rehearsals in the pit before the short run of performances. I wasn't singing, so was just around to give notes to the choir and make sure they were doing whatever was needed.

Fun to watch him work, tweaking things on stage (playing Dido, of course, at the same time), at one point coming to lean over the pit and yell, "Strings, intonation not very good!" and pull it all together.

I certainly agree, a great production, just fascinating. He's brilliant.

Of course, I didn't have much personal contact, but nice to have done such a production.

On a personal note, one of the performances was also my first date with my wife, Kathryn, so we both have fond memories of the production for other reasons as well!