Gluck, ORFEO ed EURIDICE: Shane Hanson (Orfeo), Elizabeth Harris (Euridice), Colleen Donnelly (Amor), Orfeo’s Choir and the UBC Opera Ensemble Chorus, Vancouver Opera Orchestra, Leslie Dala (conductor), directed by Nancy Hermiston, The Old Auditorium UBC, November 4, 2017.


Orpheus has always been a natural subject for opera—after all, he was the demigod of music in ancient myth—and many operas have featured him. But every retelling of a story is refracted though the lens of its own time. Orfeo ed Euridice is famous as a reform opera, one in which Gluck radically altered Italian serious opera, moving it away from a stylized and rigid art form to one with far greater naturalness and flexibility. But one feature of opera seria that Gluck was not willing to forego was the lieto fine, or happy ending, so much a manifestation of the optimism of the Enlightenment. The original story was much darker: Orpheus losing his wife forever and giving way to mourning, finally to be torn to pieces by a frenzied mob of women jealous at his devotion to his dead wife. Not so in this version, with its emphasis on the power of love. Despite the sorrow of loss with which the story opens and its reiteration through the famous ‘looking back’ sequence with Euridice’s repeated death, Orfeo’s love is so strong it moves the god Amor to give him back his wife a second time. Before this, the opera takes us to profound places: a contemplation of the nature of death and its effects on those still living; the relation between divine decree and human action; the role of the arts (music) in alleviating the human predicament; the mystery of the conditional gift; and the issue of trust between lovers.


UBC’s production engaged with the work as a serious opera, indeed, giving a very dark reading of a work in which love ultimately triumphs. Musically, it benefitted from an incisive and characterful chorus – as mourners, Furies, Blessed Spirits, and celebrants of love. Of the three major characters, Elizabeth Harris as Euridice was the star of the evening, with strong acting and a firm, round and often beautiful tone that conveyed a convincing and moving Euridice, by turns heartbroken and outraged at her husband’s inexplicable behavior. Shane Hanson’s Orfeo had his moments as well, singing beautifully in the Act 2 ‘Che farò senza Euridice’ and acquitting himself well in the demanding aria of heroic resolve ending Act 1, ‘Addio, o miei sospiri’. His acting, unfortunately, was often on the wooden side, rather diminishing the sympathy you would want to feel for his character. Furthermore, his tone production was not always even, at times sounding forced, at times with low notes swallowed entirely. Colleen Donnelly as Amor sang well, though acted with a kind of feisty haughtiness that left me wondering about the nature of Love.


The problems with the production stemmed from the nature of its seriousness—its concept. This was signaled immediately by the story’s removal from Gluck’s setting; the modern dress and funeral parlour of the opening swept away the potent cultural resonance of the pastoral, and the latter’s tendency toward idealization. Idealization was not what this production was after, focusing instead on the darkness of the forces that rule our lives—an interesting though reductive choice, one that fought against the beauty of the music. The sequence at the gates of hell seemed disheveled, crowding the stage with a bewildering variety of figures. The dominatrix was not out of place as a figure of hell, I suppose, although her continued presence in Elysium, as well as back on earth amid the final celebrations—a kind of doppelgänger of Amor—gave the opera a darker cast than the music or text were able to sustain. Portraying Elysium as a mental institution or sanatorium—conveying the idea that the best you can hope from the afterlife is an enforced tranquility—was ingenious in its way, if perhaps more sinister than the music allows. Certainly, it compromised Orfeo’s exquisite ‘Che puro ciel! che chiaro sol!’ as he enters the realm of the blessed.

Leslie Dala’s conducting was faithful to the score but emerged as rather workmanlike; I could have done with greater expressivity and dramatic sense. For example, Orfeo’s first mix of aria and recitative, ‘Chiamo il mio ben così’, gains in power from a growing tension leading up to his realization of the futility of his search for Euridice—‘Euridice moriva! ed io respiro ancor!’ The chilling recitative and tremolo in the strings should be climactic and hair-raising, but here it was given no more dramatic weight than anything else in the sequence.

So, a brave student production of a watershed opera, definitely providing good moments, though failing to engage in all dimensions.


© Harvey De Roo 2017