Gluck’s Orfeo/Orphée is one of those works where things get a bit complicated because an Italian and a French version wre produced and then all kinds of mash ups of the two versions. It’s a bit like Don Carlo/Don Carlos or Guglielmo Tell/Guillaume Tell. The original Orfeo ed Euridice, which premiered in Vienna is quite short and has Orfeo written for a castrato. The Paris version spreads the piece out over three acts, adds both new vocal music and lots more dance music and has Orphée written for haut-contre. Today, when people do the French version they usually cut some of the new music and us the higher Orphée music; casting either a mezzo or a counter-tenor. This is true of both recordings (Paris 2000 and Munich 2003) which have come my way in the past.
It’s quite refreshing then to find a recording that does pretty much the whole of the French version with a tenor in the title role. When it’s as good as the one recorded at La Scala in 2018 it’s a find. The production; directed by John Fulljames and Hofesh Schecter, with choreography by the latter, originates from Covent Garden but was recorded in Milan with Juan Diego Flórez as Orphée, Christiane Karg as Euridice and Fatma Said as Amour.
It’s an unusual staging. The stage is split into three “strips”; front, centre and back, with the orchestra on the middle strip. The middle strip is a lift. Sometimes it’s below stage level, sometimes flush and sometimes functions as a gantry. This, of course leaves soace in fron of and behind the orchestra for the action. Costumes are vaguely modern, or timeless, as you wish. There’s lots of dance using Schecter’s own company. It’s modern choreography in a variety of moods and I found it very effective. I think my best experiences in dance with pre-Mozart works have all involved a modern approach to the dance.
So, just to single out a few scenes. The opening features the orchestra above the stage with dancers at front and the chorus behind them. It’s very dark. Lots of scenes are very dark. For the two big dance numbers in Act 2 the Furies are in front of the orchestra but when it segues to the Dance of the Blessed Spirits, the action moves to a rather beautifully lit area at the back of the stage with dancers in filmy pastel. There’s lots of space for Orphée and Euridice to interact in the “don’t look back” scene. And then the one scene I don’t think I quite get. There’s a long sequence in which the choral number “L’amour triomphe” is interwoven with a couple of lengthy dance numbers. Early on in this Euridice disappears leaving Orphée looking pretty distraught. As the last notes play out he’s alone on stage and Euridice’s funeral pyre flares up again. I haven’t worked that one out. But generally the production tells the story and makes good use of the dance music.
The real glory of this recording though has to be Flórez. I’ve always rated him as a singer and he’s in his element in this fairly high role. I’ve also enjoyed his comic acting skills, even if they occasionally get a bit daft. Here though he shows a degree of maturity and an ability to convey emotion I haven’t seen from him before. It’s very moving. He’s very well supported by Karg and a rather cheeky chappy performance from Said as a gold lamé Amour. The chorus is also excellent and the staging shows up the many solo contributions from the orchestra as wll as its general excellence. Michele Mariotti’s conducting seems well considered.
Video direction is by Tiziano Mancini and it’s a bit variable. It’s OK and he does have to deal with a very dark stage at times but I’ve never seen the point of close ups during ensemble dance numbers. Picture and sound (DTS-HD-MA) on Blu-ray are very good. I really can’t see this working well on standard DVD though. It’s just too dark. There are no extras on the disk but the booklet has a good essay about the performance history as well as a synopsis and a track listing. Subtitle options are English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.
If you want the Paris version of Orphée et Euridice this is unquestionably the recording to get. It might even be top recommendation among all the Orfeo/Orphée versions unless you are of the all-mezzos-all-the-time tribe.