Neumeier’s Orphée et Eurydice

John Neumeier’s production of Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice, recorded at Lyric Opera in Chicago (also seen in Neumeier’s home house of Staatsoper Hamburg and scheduled for this year’s Salzburg Whitsun Festival with the same principals) is quite unusual. Neumeier designed sets, costumes and lighting and served as both director and choreography. It’s very much his work. It’s also the Paris version rather than the Vienna (Italian) version more usually seen. Orphée is sung by a tenor and there’s a lot of ballet which extends the opera to three acts spread over two hours; maybe half an hour longer than an average production. Neumeier also chooses to give the story a modern frame. Orphée is a choreographer, Amour his assistant and Eurydice his prima ballerina as well as wife. The piece opens with a ballet rehearsal during the Overture. Orphée and Eurydice have a flaming row, She storms out and is hit by a car. At the end Eurydice, or her ghost, shows up during another rehearsal. The ending is in fact very unclear. As is the purpose of the frame. Is all the action supposed to be a dream or a trip? I couldn’t tell and it really didn’t seem to add anything.

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The production is very ballet rich with the chorus in the pit and essentially all the stage action given to dancers. Richard Covello, reviewing a live performance in Opera Canada Vol LVIII no. 2, felt that this broke up the action and undermined the drama. He has a point but I think that’s 18th century French opera for you! Certainly the interestingly choreographed and extreme well executed dance (Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet) is a lot more interesting and dramatically integrated than, say, a typical Opera Atelier production. Covello also criticised the excessive use of moving scenery elements. He may have a point but the video direction (Matthew Diamond) on this recording makes it very hard to judge. It’s all over the place with frequent changes of shot and some very strange camera angles. If the production is distracting the video is far worse. This is especially problematic when the corps de ballet is deployed on mass. I assume choreographers have an idea of the picture they want to present to the audience and that’s likely not a shot from floor level 45 degrees behind the dancers!

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Whatever reservations one might have about the production, musically it’s really good. Dmitry Korchak has more than just the high notes. It’s quite a muscular performance and he sings accurately with considerable beauty and stamina. He’s well matched by the lovely bright soprano of Andriana Chuchman as Eurydice. She moves as gorgeously as she sings which matters here where she is often integrated into the ballet. The chirpier Lauren Snouffer as Amour rounds out an excellent trio. Harry Bicket conducts and gets a really elegant, refined sound from the orchestra and chorus. It might be too civilized or some tastes but it is Gluck.

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Technically, on Blu-ray, the sound and picture quality are excellent even in some very dark and somewhat strangely lit scenes. In summary, not a disk for the ballet averse but for a flavour of what French audiences of the 1770s expected, albeit cast in a modern aesthetic, it’s quite interesting and would be more so with less intrusive video direction.

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Catalogue number: C Major 714308

This review first appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of Opera Canada.

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