Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

All Good Things...

August 15, 2010

Genia Kühmeier, Christiane Karg, and Elisabeth Kulman Photo: Hermann und Clärchen Baus/Salzburg Festival 2010

Without a doubt, the new production of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice was the best opera I saw at this year’s Salzburg Festival. I know that may come as a surprise, and I’ll admit that it wasn’t what I was expecting either. In fact, getting a ticket to Saturday’s performance, which featured members of the Vienna Philharmonic led by Riccardo Muti, was somewhat of an afterthought and was not part of my original plan for the week. And I’ll admit that I may have overreacted somewhat considering that I felt I had just slogged through three days of musically exceptional, but dramatically inert opera performances. Suddenly being surrounded by Dieter Dorn and Jürgen Rose’s bright, simple, attractive, and often witty staging seemed like a godsend. The largely empty and deep stage is surrounded by a white frame that further encloses a circular space with a revolving floor. The space is further surrounded at times by a semi-circular back wall which may be mirrored at times. The three principals and entire chorus are in modern street clothes and there is a small non-singing “chorus” of women who act as doubles for Orfeo, and who later transform into Euridice after her redemption. Amore arrives on a glowing magic carpet surrounded by a tableau vivant of gods who watch the actions play out. And in a move swimming against the current stream, there are no dance numbers to go along with the substantial orchestral passages in Gluck’s score. Instead, Dorn and Rose rely on a variety of scenarios enacted by the chorus. Most humorously in the final interlude as the lovers are reunited, they watch couples enter the stage and act out unspoken conflict and resolution. Flowers are rejected and thrown, and, bless their hearts, Dorn and Rose even toss in a gay male couple in the mix right here in straight-laced Salzburg.

But besides a staging that is active and interesting to look at, this Orfeo ed Euridice is blessed with immensely satisfying musical credentials. Riccardo Muti takes everything he does with great care. He may not always be right about somethings, but his leadership of the orchestra was impeccable and this was the most satisfying account of the opera I’ve yet heard. The Vienna Philharmonic players had sounded great this week in many settings. But after richly polished Bruckner and the most romantic Berg I’ve heard, who would have imagined such a light and detailed turn of this particular opera. And then there were three excellent vocalists paired with an uncommonly good Vienna State Opera Chorus. Elisabeth Kulman sang Orfeo and gave one of the most honest-to-goodness heartbreaking renditions of Che farò senza Euridice you’ll ever hear. For once the aria sounded like the remorseful funerary music it actually is. Genia Kühmeier was the Euridice, and Christine Karg sang Amore. Both were bright and light and beautiful. For names that don’t get billing above the title this was superb casting, and, even more importantly, beautiful singing. So, it just goes to show, hang around long enough, and something good is bound to turn up. It was a great week in Salzburg, and the current Orfeo ed Euridice is absolutely the opera most worth seeing in a festival full of big names and big stars. It runs through the 24th of August.


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