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Opera on DVD: Orphée et Eurydice

Available from Amazon
Gluck, Orphée et Eurydice, M. Kožená, M. Bender, P. Petibon, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, J. E. Gardiner

(re-released on February 10, 2009)
EMI Classics DVD 50999 2 16577 9 5
If you already know that you do not like Robert Wilson's highly idiosyncratic style of opera production, then you know that this DVD is not for you. The American-born director's stagings, like the infamous Châtelet Ring cycle in 2005, are mostly cut from the same cloth: a nearly empty stage with perhaps a drop cloth and a small outcropping of rock, a careful control of color and light, and mask-like facial expressions and stylized movement and gestures for the singers, derived from his interest in Japanese Kabuki theater. Wilson directed this production of Gluck's masterpiece Orphée et Eurydice at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, back in 1999, where it was double-billed with the same composer's Alceste to celebrate the completion of renovations to that theater. The DVD recording, now difficult to locate, will be re-released by EMI next month, and for the adventurous opera-lover it is well worth acquiring if you missed it the first time around.

Gardiner uses the Berlioz revision of the score (perhaps with a few changes -- the multiple editions of this opera are a nightmare), that is, sung in French but using many adaptations of parts of the Italian and Vienna versions (the trombones are back in the underworld). He has a mezzo-soprano Orphée, the lovely Magdalena Kožená, costumed in a shapeless midnight blue robe and made to look somewhat more masculine with short hair and diagonal swaths of blue eyeshadow. The Amour of wacky French soprano Patricia Petibon is fantastically outré, wide-eyed and goofy in a short silken slip of light blue. Soprano Madeline Bender is the least pleasing of the three as Eurydice, but the occasional stridency is balanced by the strength and edge of her voice. Overall, the sure-handed John Eliot Gardiner leads the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and members of his Monteverdi Choir in a luscious performance, captured in warm sound.

The production is classic Wilson, lots of various tints of blue, in the costumes and in glowing light behind the singers, with an overall darkness to the way it looks on DVD. Very little about the staging is literal, like a Dance of the Furies without furies, only Kožená passing through rock-shaped holes in hanging scrims. Only at the very end are there some unexpected gestures, as Amour rights the tragic ending and brings Eurydice back to life. The arches of an 18th-century proscenium stage descend into the blank space, framing the moment of the deus ex machina in a self-consciously theatrical pose. A slowly twirling cube, a Wilsonian symbol of fate, hovers in the background. The literalist will find himself befuddled, but Wilson's approach makes a connection to the mythological in opera, making a statement that is more profound than its simplicity might lead one to expect.


Gluck, Orphée et Eurydice, M. Kožená, P. Petibon, Orchestre Révolutionnaire
et Romantique, J. E. Gardiner, Théâtre du Châtelet, 1999
(other YouTube videos)


A.C. Douglas said...

This is indeed a first-rate realization of Orphée, and Wilson's staging is pitch-perfect. As I wrote on S&F in February 2006 in another context:

I've seen but a single Robert Wilson production, and that via TV: his staging of Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice done for the Paris Théâtre du Chatelet. I was hugely impressed by his work here, as I was by the performance in general. Wilson's poetic-symbolic mise en scène was beautiful, evocative, and riveting, as was his poetic-symbolic static choreographing of the action; to my way of thinking, both pitch-perfect concepts for the staging of this work.


Charles T. Downey said...

Agreed. I'd really love to see his take on the Ring cycle.

A.C. Douglas said...

As would I. I even speculated very briefly on Wilson's Ring in a half-assed sort of way in a toss-off post on S&F in 2005. It can be read here.