GENEVA (Reuters Life!) - A new production in Geneva of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s 18th century opera Orphee, directed by Swedish choreographer Mats Ek, uses modern ballet to bring out its message of the redeeming power of music.
The production, based on a version first seen in Stockholm in 2004, draws on a modern staging to recreate the revolutionary impact of the opera, premiered in 1762.
It is based on the revision the German composer made for Paris in 1774, and with its timeless story of art and love overcoming death is the oldest opera to have stayed continuously in the repertoire.
“What’s revolutionary for me in the whole piece is there’s an amazing innocence in the music,” said British conductor Jonathan Darlington.
“It’s very pure, it says what it has to say incredibly directly — for the time that was very original,” he told WRS Swiss radio.
In Ek’s staging modern dress and design and contemporary dance combine to recreate the revolutionary impact of Gluck’s original masterpiece.
One shock is the portrayal of Orpheus — the musician who goes down to the Underworld to reclaim his wife Eurydice from the dead — as an old man, not a youth.
That reading also underlines the fact that an artist needs maturity to create, and represents Orpheus as a modern figure who has lost and mourned a wife.
One of the highlights of the opera is when Orpheus encounters the Furies at the gates of the Underworld. He calms them with the sweetness of his singing and they let him pass.
Ek brilliantly evokes these tormented souls in Hell, using dance and bloated body suits to depict twisted and deformed creatures writhing in agony — like a modern take on one of Brueghel’s nightmare visions.
The gods allow Orpheus to lead Eurydice back to life — on condition that he does not look back at her or talk to her until they have left the Underworld.
Eurydice cannot understand why he is ignoring her. Finally her misery prompts Orpheus to turn to her, and she dies again.
Ek’s version portrays this as the breakdown in communication between a couple when their relationship goes wrong.
In Orphee, Gluck sought to prune the florid ornamentation that had developed in opera during the baroque period, where the virtuosity of the singers was more important than the music.
Instead he concentrated on the drama, with simple plots and music. Orphee has only three characters and a chorus of dancers and singers.
Arguably the orchestra is another character, a point underlined by Ek who places them on stage for the overture in the same suits and fedoras worn by the chorus in the first act.
Gluck’s new simplicity is most striking when Orpheus gives voice to his grief in the last act — one of the greatest laments in opera.
As Orpheus, German mezzo-soprano Annette Seiltgen — who in this version must act and dance as well as sing — performs the aria with great emotion and expression, although she sounds a little rough on some of the higher notes earlier in the opera.
The choreography is not just dramatic but witty — at times distractingly so — and not everyone will agree with Ek’s ending, but the production is sure to go down as one of the classic interpretations of one of opera’s staples.
The production premiered Wednesday and runs to March 19.