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Notes from the 2010 Salzburg Festival ( 7 )

Christoph Willibald Gluck • Orfeo ed Euridice

Perhaps uniquely, the Salzburg Festival is the one place where you can dislike one performance after another, and still have a great time. The cute city, the spicy late-night “Bosna” hot dogs, the chats and beers with colleagues from near and afar, the professional organization (German efficiency with southern touches of hospitality) all allow to enjoy oneself when the stages offer little enjoyment.

I noticed, inadvertently almost, that except for the performance of one replacement pianist (Polina Leschenko), I haven’t much enjoyed the particular concerts I’ve been to—for a variety of reasons. All were a mixed bag, offering their share of interesting repertoire and terrific performances, but never consistently, never without the odd movement, composition, or execution gone wrong. In a way last night’s Orfeo ed Euridice, in Gluck’s 1762 Vienna version, was the nadir, so far. The music is great, of course. In anticipation I listened to René Jacobs’ recording (Harmonia Mundi), and under his hands the opera sounds something like this. Gluck is the beginning of opera as I understand it… the beginning of equivalence of music and text, the beginning of intelligent drama. Obviously there are other, earlier operas that, given the right production and discriminating editing hand, are great. And many that followed that aren’t… but in any case Gluck is a watershed composer for opera perhaps in the way that Monterverdi and Wagner are.

The musical interpretation wasn’t great… but it was solid. Riccardo Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic don’t sound like Jacobs’ Freiburg Baroque Orchestra and obviously are not supposed to. You get a bigger, burly Gluck, with a token harpsichord more for looks than sound, since you only hear it once, vaguely, during the overture. After that it disappears in the pit never to rise out again. But after a spirited lush beginning, the performance more and more, seamlessly adapted to the level of the production and the singers which is to say it petered out with overtones of dullness. Homogenized Gluck, played like backwards Mozart, not opera radical for its time.

Nothing compared to the rest of the show, though. Elisabeth Kulman and Genia Kühmeier as Orfeo and Euridice, respectively, stood out only for staggering blandness, complete lack of stage presence, and being bewilderingly devoid of any dramatic flair. Acting? What acting? Even the singing, in a perfectly capable way, was featureless, bordering dull. An exception must be made for Christiane Karg’s Amore who, with the little stage time she had and despite the lack of direction, stood out for seemingly accidental liveliness and flair; her twittery vibrato coming across as very likeable, indeed. Sadly that didn’t so much provide respite but painful contrast to the rest of the goings-on.

Compared to another recent direction that absolutely incensed me—Neuenfels’ Medea in Corinto in Munich (yet to be written about)—I realized: Neuenfels infuriated me for badly executed, painfully bad and banal ideas with faux-leftist politics exposing an ultimately racist undercurrent. With Dieter Dorn that clearly wasn’t the problem. Usually you know what you get with Dorn: conservative, minimalist, possibly lovely, and perfectly predictable productions. Combined with Gluck and Muti, that might have been intended as a tonic to the festival goers who are already taxed with Rihm (to attend or avoid), Lulu (to love or loathe), and other assorted modernities.

Turns out it wasn’t a tonic, it was a barbiturate. Dorn couldn’t have taken more than five minutes to conceive this production, and no more than another five to execute it. A proscenium frame (expected; lovelessly painted like a Club Med swimming pool) to avoid having to work with the space of the Großes Festspielhaus. A few vista shots, to pretend to work with the space. A Hades scene (Orfeo entering via a ladder from above) in sulfuric yellow lighting, a semicircular hall of mirrors (plagiarized, to boot), illogical movements of the protagonists, unmotivated action on the part of the chorus, with the housewifey ladies of the Vienna State Opera Chorus rolling about in the most unnatural manner, making the chorus scenes sights of supernumerary embarrassment. In the underworld that Gluck asks to look strangely pleasant, heaven-like, Asian chorus members had to wear (horrible) blond wigs to look like the type of ‘proper people’ that is apparently allowed in Dorn’s heaven (or Dorn’s idea of Gluck’s heaven). The only thing heartbreaking about Euridice’s and Orfeo’s interaction was how ridiculous it all looked.

Almost every instance in the staging could be singled out for halfheartedness, complete lovelessness and listlessness, lack of ideas. And when an idea did pop up—in the dance interlude of the finale—it gets silly with minutes of pantomime of boy-girl chases, the most civilized rape you have ever seen, hammed-up reconciliation, cheesy, bouquet smashing temper tantrums… the painfully campy conclusion to an insultingly thoughtless ‘direction’.

Tomorrow about Lulu which, so much for now, was fantastic.

All pictures courtesy Salzburg Festival, © Hermann und Clärchen Baus


herman said...

This habit of 'preparing' for a concert by listening to a cd of the music offered may actually be quite counterproductive.

Anonymous said...

My favorite performance of this opera is actually from the Salzburg Festival, and it also features the Vienna Philharmonic. It is the 1959 performance conducted by Karajan with Simionato, Jurinac, and Sciutti. Yes, it is on the heavier side, but let's not forget that this is an opera about lost love, where the dances do not just simply entertain. Plus, there is a humanity in Simionato's singing and, never though I was going to say that, even in HvK's conducting...

jfl said...

re. Hermann: In this case it certainly was.

re. Anonymous: A recording of that performance was released by Orfeo in collaboration with the S'burg Festival in 2010. It's not how it would be done today, of course, but it is glorious.