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Elyseum Off the Champs-Elysées

Théâtre des Champs-Elysées
05/22/2018 -  & May 25*, 27, 28, 31, June 2, 2018
Christoph Willibald Gluck : Orfeo ed Euridice
Philippe Jaroussky (Orfeo), Patricia Petibon (Euridice), Emöke Baráth (Amore)
Chœur de Radio France, I Barocchisti, Diego Fasolis (Conductor)
Robert Carsen (Stage Director & Lighting), Tobias Hoheisel (Sets & costumes), Robert Carsen & Peter Van Praet (Lighting)

(© Vincent Pontet)

Christoph Willibald Gluck’s contributions to opera were immeasurable. Tired of the excesses of Italian opera seria which had severely declined since the inception of opera by Monteverdi, Gluck believed that music should be at the service of poetry, and that the ideal would be a perfect fusion of the musical score with the libretto. The preeminence of the castrati had led to a circus act where the singers wanted to show off their technique, at the expense of the drama, through ornamentation, to the delight of their audiences. Orfeo ed Euridice, premiered in Vienna in 1762, was his first attempt to set an opera according to the principles of his operatic “reform.” Based on the myth of the poet Orpheus who goes to the Underworld and charms the Furies to allow him to bring back his beloved wife Eurydice form the Dead, Orfeo ed Euridice is a moving parable rather than a typical opera. It is distilled to its essence with no side plots and with only three characters: Orpheus, his dead wife Eurydice and Amore, who leads him to the Underworld and warns him not to look at his beloved or explain to her the reason he can’t. Distressed by Eurydice’s grief at a husband who ignores, he yields to the temptation of gazing at her face and reassuring her, thus losing her forever.

Paris is one of the world’s operatic capitals where one has a plethora of choices. The Paris Opera in its 19th Century Opéra Garnier and its 20th Century Opéra Bastille are the most well-known venues, but l’Opéra-Comique, le Châtelet and le Théâtre des Champs-Elysées are occasionally also venues for opera. The latter is in the posh Avenue Montaigne off the glittering Champs-Elysées. It has a glorious history. Built in 1913 by architect Auguste Perret, it features a magnificent art deco facade and interior. It witnessed Diaghilev’s Les Ballets Russes, Rudolf Nureyev, Maria Callas, Ella Fitzgerald, Vladimir Horowitz, Charles Münch, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Herbert von Karajan, Leonard Bernstein and even Pink Floyd. It’s a magical experience to be on such hallowed ground. It’s also appropriate to see a portrayal of the Elyseum, the abode of the Blessed Spirits after death, right off the Champs-Elysées.

Robert Carsen is my favourite contemporary opera director, thanks to his creativity and his uncommon erudition. This Canadian treasure has insight into the plots of opera that only a person firmly knowledgeable of literature, mythology, history and psychology can access. His visually striking sets are never gratuitous. In this production of Gluck’s opera, he chose an austere barren terrain for the opening scene, Eurydice’s funeral. The costumes were early to mid-20th century. The place could be Greece, Sicily, Syria or even Ireland. The mourning chorus were modest townspeople accompanying Orpheus to the burial of his beloved. Carsen added a small detail, not in Ranieri di Calzabigi’s libretto, that was touching: the poet’s attempted suicide and its prevention by a companion. The director’s innovation that was truly shattering was Orpheus’s passage to the Underworld through Eurydice’s freshly dug grave. Despair could not have been more emphatic and histrionics were avoided. This was the insight of a genius. In the Underworld, the guarding Furies are other fresh corpses in their shrouds: yet another terrifying and moving image. The choreography of their protestation to Orpheus’s audacious attempt at entry of the domain of the dead was magical through the synchronized movement of their shroud holding arms. Likewise, Orpheus’s charming of the Furies was subtly expressed through the change of their posture from giving him their backs while initially protesting to facing him while acquiescing. Countless similar “Carsian” touches found their brilliant way into this marvelously evocative production. I’m aware there is no such adjective as “Carsian,” but given Robert Carsen’s genius, it ought to be introduced to the English language.

Visually striking images and brilliant stage direction are not guarantees to excellent opera production. Even according to the reformer Gluck, the music – and the inherent singing – still count. The three singers were all excellent in their own right. The problem was the combination. Philippe Jaroussky is one of the world’s leading countertenors and his technique is near flawless. However, he has a high voice closer to a soprano’s than a contralto’s. In the company of Patricia Petibon as Eurydice and Emöke Baráth as Amore, we have an assembly of high voices that one tires of, and eventually they irritate the ear. Had there been additional basso or baritone roles to temper the stratosphere, it would have been aesthetically fine, but one must not forget this is a three-role opera. The role of Orpheus was conceived for a contralto sounding voice. Before the resurgence of countertenors to this repertoire, it was marked by singers such as Marilyn Horne, Janet Baker, Lucia Valentini-Terrani and most of all Kathleen Ferrier. An element of earthiness in the voice marries well with travel through the earth to reach the beloved. The warmth of the lower register is necessary to assuage the Furies and allow access to the Underworld. In his aria “Che puro ciel,” Jaroussky was especially moving in his phrasing of the final strophe: “I tuoi soavi accenti, gli amorosi tuoi sguardi, un tuo sorriso, sono il sommo ben che chieder voglio.” Likewise, upon losing his beloved yet again, he wonderfully phrased the opera’s most famous aria, “Che faro senza Euridice.” His emphasis on “più soccorso, più speranza nè dal mondo, nè dal ciel!” was devastatingly moving. Patricia Petibon had previously sung the role of Amore in other productions, but this was her first attempt at Euridice. Her voice sounded more mature and the role suited her. More striking was her acting: a truly forsaken woman. Emöke Baráth as Amore, possessing a beautiful coloratura voice, sang with brio. However, she and Petibon possess similarly high voices. Swiss conductor Diego Fasolis directed the musicians of I Barocchisti and the choir with elegance and style, paying special attention to the singers.

Ossama el Naggar



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