Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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William Burden Triumphs in Gluck’s “Orphee et Eurydice” – Seattle Opera, February 29, 2012

March 3rd, 2012

On Leap Day, 2012, Seattle Opera presented its second performance of Tenor William Burden’s extraordinary portrayal of Gluck’s “Orphee et Eurydice”. The augmented French version of the opera, created for the Paris of Gluck’s close friend and pupil, Marie Antoinette, is for a high tenor voice.  Thus, the pitch and sound of Orphee’s voice differs significantly from Gluck’s first, Viennese version of the piece and from the elegant, mid-19th re-orchestration by Berlioz, both of which were written for a mezzo-soprano.

William Burden’s Orphee

Much of the  tessitura of the French role of Orphee lies high in the tenor range. When this version is done at all, it often is sung by a light-voiced artist who specializes in the late 18th century French classical style and who may have a voice appropriate to smaller venues.

But Seattle Opera created its new production as a vehicle for the mainstream New Jersey lyric tenor William Burden. The tenor is a particular favorite of Seattle audiences and of the Seattle Opera General Director, Speight Jenkins.

Burden brought to the role, one of the longest and most demanding roles in the classical French tenor repertory, a voice of greater power than one might expect for the role. Yet he has both the flexibility to sing the coloratura cadenzas and the stamina to sing high in his range in Seattle Opera’s large McCaw Theater for the long periods of time required by Gluck’s opera.

[Below: William Burden is Orphee; edited image, based on an Elise Bakketun photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

But the role requires not just the high voice, that is most often associated with Orphee’s expressions of grief at his wife’s death. In the second act duets with Eurydice, Burden’s voice is centered lower in the tenor range, where the baritonal heft in his lower voice adds yet another dimension to his performance. (Departing from the lyric tenor’s expected repertory, Burden includes the baritone role of Pelleas in Debussy’s “Pelleas et Melisande” in his repertory.)

Burden’s performance provided Seattle Opera audiences with a truly revelatory experience. Gluck’s hauntingly beautiful and familiar music is sung with a voice that seems created for the role, in a performance that displays the innate power of the composer’s final version of one of the greatest operatic masterpieces.

Gluck’s Orpheus, be it in the Italian or the French version, be the role sung by a tenor or by a mezzo-soprano, is the dominant voice in the opera, singing almost two-thirds of the time alloted to the three principal characters. Even so, the evening’s vocal excitement was not just limited to Burden’s voice.

Burden is an intelligent and resourceful actor as well as a singer. He was surrounded by the Seattle Opera’s pleasing production, intelligent stage direction by Jose Maria Condemi, and an effective chorus and seven dancers. Burden’s supporting principals – Davinia Rodriguez, his Eurydice, and Julianne Gearhart, his Amour – were well-matched with him, both for their vocal and acting skills.

Jose Maria Condemi’s Production and Direction

The new production was conceived and directed by Jose Maria Condemi, one of the most insightful and imaginative of contemporary stage directors. The production had an elegance appropriate to the theme of Orphee’s journey into the underworld to bring his departed wife, Eurydice, back into the world of the living. Philip Lienau was the set designer, Heidi Zamora designed the costumes.

In Gluck’s opera, there are three basic scenes – the graveyard where Eurydice’s body is consigned to the earth and to which Orpheus returns with the momentarily distraught Eurydice in the opera’s final moments, the realm of the Furies who guard the underworld, and the Elysian Fields, where the spirits of the dead exist in a joyful state.

For each of these scenes, in collaboration with the Seattle Opera’s creative team, Condemi created a specific image. The burial place was dominated by an ancient, overarching deciduous tree, bereft of leaves. Crowds of mourners were silhouetted against the sky, as ithey might be in an Ingmar Bergman film, with the seven dancers performing mourning rituals.

Amour, the resident deus ex machina

The sombre first scene is lightened by the sudden appearance of the demi-god Amour, the Cupid figure. (In this production Amour’s costuming and appearance is feminine.) It is Amour, representing the capriciousness of the gods, who changes the rules of human existence whenever it suits the gods’ whims. Condemi places Amour, with a purposeful anachronism, on a bicycle, so that, whether the metaphor was intended or not, Amour is literally a god out of, or at least, off of a machine. If Amour steps off the bike, look for the situation to change.

Amour’s rule-changing episodes take place on two occasions. First, Orphee is given a magic lyre (which Amour pulls out of the bike’s rear side-pockets) that permits Orpheus to disarm – through the lyre’s music – the Furies, who guard against living humans from encroaching on the lands in which the human dead reside.

Amour plays mind games with Orphee and Eurydice, forbidding Orphee to look at Eurydice all the time he is bringing her back from the dead, and fobidding him from telling her why he can’t. But when their future as living souls appears bleakest, Amour rides in again on the  bicycle to make everything all right. Orphee passes the trial that Amour set out for him, and thus Amour will let the lovers reunite on Earth.

(On her last ride into the wings, Gearhart, playing Amour, unintentionally fell to the ground with her bike, but management assured us that she was unhurt.)

[Below: Julianne Gearhart as Amour; edited image, based on an Elise Bakketun photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

Chorus and Dancers

Gluck’s opera includes a series of dances that include some of the most famous melodies of the opera. Condemi, in collaboration with choreographer Yannis Adoniou, organizes each of the dances to incorporate them into the action and to create a clear story arc.

There are two imaginative uses of the chorus (directed by Beth Kirchhoff)  and dancers. The first is the use of the chorus as monsters who try to block Orpheus’ path into the underworld. Costumed in tubular syntheetics and bathed in orange and yellow light, they were indeed imaginatively grotesque.

[Below: the Furies attempt to block the entrance to the Underworld; edited image, based on an Elise Bakketun photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

Eurydice of the Elysian Fields

The second use of the dancers, is to populate, along with the chorus, the Elysian Fields, the dancers from time to time using the opportunity to slide down a grassy slope, while the beaming choristers exuded continuous joy. Here, Condemi’s production created a strikingly different visual scene from the tortured human existence of the first scene and the hellfire of the second, with a continuous stream of confetti floating through the brightly-lit scene. Lighting Designer Connie Yun created remarkably different visual images for each of the opera’s four scenes.

It is in the Elysian Fields that Davinia Rodriguez sings Eurydice’s famous aria enchantingly, reminding us that even with all the melody that Gluck showers on Burden’s Orphee, Gluck created wonderful music also for Eurydice and Amour to sing.

[Below: Davinia Rodriguez as Eurydice; edited image, based on an Elise Bakketun photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

The beautiful images evoked of the Elysian paradise makes understandable Eurydice’s distress at being taken from this beautiful place by a husband who refuses to look at or speak to her. (At least one popular television series with a supernatural theme followed a similar storyline, with the heroine upset that she has been returned to life on Earth from a similar heavenly setting.)

But a shower of confetti glitter from Amour resolves everything and Orphee, Eurydice and the populace all rejoice in a happy ending.

[Below: the lovers reunited, the populace gathers for a happy ending; edited image, based on an Elise Bakketun photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

This is a production and cast that deserves to be seen in other opera houses. The Seattle Opera makes a persuasive case for the Parisian tenor version of the opera, and Burden shows how a bravura showpiece for the lyric tenor voice  can be a dramatically appealing experience for 21st century audiences. Gary Thor Wedow, who has a special affinity for Gluck’s music, conducted the Seattle Opera Orchestra brilliantly.

I unreservedly recommend any of the remaining performances for anyone able to get to the Seattle Opera.

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