Gluck "Orphée et Eurydice" at the Royal Opera House, reviewed in The Observer

"The whole evening was a breakthrough"
20th September, 2015 

By Fiona Maddocks

At first glimpse it was hard to see how a nearly pitch-dark stage with an orchestra on it and the key soloist seated in a metal stacking chair could turn into a full-scale production worthy of launching the Royal Opera House’s new season. That it did, surprisingly and miraculously, is credit to the co-directors, John Fulljames and the Israeli choreographer Hofesh Shechter, as well as to the combined forces of the conductor John Eliot Gardiner, his English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir, the cast of three (Juan Diego Flórez, Amanda Forsythe and Lucy Crowe) and Shechter’s own dance company – most of whom were on stage much of the time, song, dance, drama and music folding into one in constant flux, always a coherent whole.

Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice (1774), as in any telling of the Orpheus myth, is about the power of music. The orchestral and choral writing, you could even argue, is the best bit, especially in this later, rarely performed French version of Gluck’s more concise Italian original (Orfeo ed Euridice). With some 45 minutes of dance music, as well as an overture and countless scurrying interjections, the English Baroque Soloists – hydraulically rearranged, rising and falling before our eyes to be below, above or at stage level – were breathtaking, tireless and versatile.

The trio of on-stage trombones, sour, black and infernal in their gutsy outbursts, deserve their own rosettes. The Monteverdi Choir, dressed in subfusc, worked seamlessly with the Hofesh Shechter Company, who were variously hairy half-naked Furies or nymph-like Blessed Spirits. The choreography, loose-limbed, furious, funky, punky and expressive, conveyed grief, anger and optimism. Where singing ended, dance began.

In the Italian Orfeo, Gluck intended his lead role to be sung by an alto or soprano castrato (illegal in Italy after 1870 and now taken by countertenors, or mezzos). Orphée, however, is for haute-contre, the rare, high tenor voice of the kind the Peruvian superstar Juan Diego Flórez possesses. At the start, as the chorus mourns his loss, he yelps with high, whimpering howls of “Eurydice”, to terrible and moving effect. Yet his performance was admirably cool, agonised at the loss of Eurydice (the warm-voiced Lucy Crowe), trepidatious at the promise that his lyre-playing would restore her from the underworld. In the ROH’s reading, his anxiety is justified and Gluck’s mawkish happy ending remains rewardingly ambiguous.

As for the staging, Conor Murphy (designer) and Lee Curran (lighting) retained the opening, unadorned simplicity, encompassing all beneath acoustically sympathetic and adaptable wooden panels. At times Flórez sang in a single torch-beam of light, as if a world beyond was trying to reach him in his darkness. At others, one large hole in the canopy gave way to dozens of small ones, a kind of celestial colander with shafts of light pushing through – to jumble metaphors as befits this eclectic work. For a Gluck doubter – yes, I admit – the whole evening was a breakthrough: I’d return immediately. The response, for Gardiner and his players especially, was thunderous. The bar is set high for the rest of the ROH season.

Read on The Guardian website