Not all tragic operas come to tragic ends, an ironic circumstance found in a number of operas on the Orpheus myth from the Baroque and Classic periods. The list includes some of the earliest operas, such as Jacopo Peri’s Euridice (1600) and Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (1609), as well as Glück’s Orfeo ed Euridice (1762), Boston Baroque presented on May 4 (and 5) at Jordan Hall under the direction of Martin Pearlman. The production featured soloists countertenor Owen Willetts as Orpheus, soprano Mary Wilson as Eurydice, and soprano Courtney Huffman as Cupid (“Amor”). Pearlman led the period-instrument orchestra, with the Boston Baroque chorus serving its natural dramatic function. The musicians were joined by a troupe of dancers, creating a full 18th-century dramatic ensemble.
The musical and dance performances were a resounding success, reflected in the audience’s rousing response. All three vocal soloists performed their roles well, in particular Mary Wilson, whose clear, resonant sound was very well suited to the role of Eurydice. Owen Willetts, trained in the English choral tradition, affected a bright, powerful tone in his portrayal of Orpheus that created a successful approximation of the castrato voice type used for the opera’s premiere in 1762.
The “Orfeo dancer” (Henoch Spinola) and the “Eurydice dancer” (Ruth Bronwen Whitney) performed with strength and grace, an impressive ensemble as the proto-protagonist pair. The orchestra played well in general, though the winds (and especially the horns) frequently struggled with technical accuracy in the opening act. Per usual, the vocal ensemble was an impressive chorus, effectively portraying the wide range of required dramatic effects.
In keeping with the historical aims of the organization, Pearlman presented the original version of the work, even leaving out portions of the composer’s later adaptations of the work that have become popular over the years, such as the extended dance music from the later French version, Orphée et Eurydice. In contrast, David Gately’s staging and Gianni di Marco’s choreography were dominated by a post-modern approach, freely mixing modern and classic styles. While the singers wore modern “dress” outfits (Orpheus wore a collared, button-down shirt and Eurydice a dress with an open cardigan sweater), the dancers’ outfits seemed to be a combination of both classical and modern styles. Cupid’s jeans, leopard-print top, and leather jacket took a decided turn toward cutesiness or cleverness; this outfit was the only one that felt fundamentally incongruous with the dignified nature of Cazalbigi’s text, as well as Glück’s music.
The blocking was divided between the classical posing of Eurydice and the chorus and the more natural movements of Orpheus and Cupid. Di Marco’s mixture of historical and modern dance styles, though appearing to be loosely based on the late-Baroque dance style that was still predominant in the mid-18th century, very often resembled 19th-century balletic dancing, reminiscent of the elegance of the Russian Bolshoi Ballet; for example, the “Eurydice dancer” wore traditional ballet slippers for her first appearance, in which she executed the iconic “tip-toe” motion across the stage. This frequent use of the 19th-century style was mystifying, artistically speaking, as it has no apparent connection to the Baroque dance style and therefore offered no clear connection to the work itself. This lack of a clear connection between the various historical styles employed by Gately and di Marco and the work’s original historical properties seemed to create an artistic aesthetic that spoke primarily to the modern artists’ interests rather than to the work they were presenting.