in: Reviews

May 7, 2012

Glück’s Original Orfeo with Modern Touches

by

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.

Joel Schwindt is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in musicology at Brandeis University. In addition to performances as a vocalist and conductor, his writings have been published by the Baerenreiter-Verlag publishing house and the Choral Journal.

13 Comments

  1. Why is there an umlaut in the composer’s name in the review?

    Comment by Stephen Owades — May 7, 2012 at 11:45 pm

  2. Glück was a German native, whose family name included an umlaut. It was included or dropped throughout his career, as one would adapt the spelling of his or her name per the circumstance and location in which they found themselves. As a result, you will see his name with and without the umlaut throughout and after his lifetime.
    Thanks for your question!

    Comment by Joel Schwindt — May 8, 2012 at 8:14 am

  3. I probably shouldn’t belabor this point, but do you also insist on “Georg Friedrich Händel” for that eminent German-born composer who himself preferred (and signed his name as) “George Frideric Handel” once he had settled in England? Gluck wrote his Orfeo outside Germany, and he wasn’t using an umlaut then. It seems pretty pedantic to impose one on him now.

    Comment by Stephen Owades — May 9, 2012 at 3:10 am

  4. As a musicologist, I impose all sorts of things on people and events, whether they are wanted or not (he said, with tongue planted firmly in cheek)! As I mentioned above, and as you illustrated very well in your comment on that German composer who wrote Italian operas for the English, a composer would change the spelling of his or her name, per circumstance. My choice to include the umlaut in this composer’s name certainly was not based in any sort of historical Puritanism, but just a choice, based on the circumstance of my historical humor at the time I composed this my critical opus.

    Comment by Joel Schwindt — May 9, 2012 at 8:00 am

  5. >> 
    based on the circumstance of my historical humor at the time
    Quite the caprice for a wannabe PhD musicologist. Owades’s Handel comparison is on point. One may enjoy being perverse or cutesy, but in public print it looks like what it is, which is perverse at best. Charles Rosen (Gluck expert) does not so do it, the German-born Michael Steinberg did not so do it, nor Sadie/Grove’s, nor Libbey nor the Harvard Dictionary.  May they inform your humors.

    Comment by david moran — May 9, 2012 at 11:12 am

  6. It seems I must completely remove my tongue from my cheek for this one… 

    My point is not that the spelling of his surname should be based a capricious decision, but rather that the idea of a “right” or “wrong” spelling simply would not have entered the mind of composers at this point in history. Most likely, Christoph Willibald would have thought of the different spellings as one used “when I’m at home,” and another for “when I’m in Vienna/Florence/London/Paris/etc.”I suppose one could attempt to match the circumstance of each work’s composition to the most likely spelling of his name in that city or country, but as Vienna was a multi-lingual court at the time (as were almost all major city courts in Europe), it would only be a guess. 
    I decided to go with the native spelling of his name, therefore, as there is no other firm criteria on which to decide between it and the various “foreign” spellings. I’ve not discussed this particular issue with Dr. Rosen, or the editors for the various resources listed above; it is possible that their decision was based in simple convenience of print, however, as well as a similar understanding of the historical circumstance.

    Comment by Joel Schwindt — May 9, 2012 at 1:20 pm

  7. >> 
     >> it is possible that their decision was based in simple convenience of print … .

    Not a chance, just worldwide-accepted usage, like Handel. If you were familiar with Charles Rosen’s and Michael Steinberg’s books (at least those books’ typesetting), not to mention Grove’s, you would know this speculation to be impossible. (But you must be familiar with them, studying musicology at Brandeis.) 
    As for ‘native spelling’, looking at the Bärenreiter edition of Orfeo ed Euridice and the Kalmus of Alceste, one sees ‘Gluck’ there as well. 

    Comment by david moran — May 9, 2012 at 5:47 pm

  8. You’re right, David: I am putting myself on less-than-firm footing when I guess at the intention of another author; I will take greater care in future.
    Although I hope that I’m wrong, it seems that this conversation has taken a bit of an unfriendly turn, so I will excuse myself from further discussion for the time being.

    Comment by Joel Schwindt — May 9, 2012 at 7:24 pm

  9. In contrast to the reviewer who found the melange of dance styles somewhat incongruous, I found the dancing mesmerizingly apropos.  The enthusiastic audience response echoed my reaction — the concertgoers were not just applauding the spectacular singing and playing, but also the sublime dance for about half the running time of the performance. The Venezuelan choreographer received an ovation when he mounted the stage for a bow.

    Similarly, the criticism of Amor’s attire was out of place. Courtney Huffman’s outfit was perfectly suited to the way she portrayed the character: as a sassy, jaunty personality. She sang with great verve, style, and wit.

    Finally, the reviewer offered only thin praise for  Owen Willet’s extraordinary voice. His rich, honeyed timbre felt natural, a welcome departure from much of the forced pseudo-castrato attempts of other countertenors. He could maintain a consistently melodic, deep, tragic tone yet hit the high notes with sweetness and ease. And he rolled his Italian “rrr’s” with a relish that was delicious.

    All in all, this was one of the finest Boston Baroque performances — clearly an A+.
    GJL

    Comment by Gloria Leitner — May 10, 2012 at 9:59 am

  10. This is sorta like constantly referring to Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos as “Maestro de Burgos” instead of “Maestro Fruhbeck”, or my referring to WCRB’s Ron della Chiesa as “Ron della Chiesa” as “Ron della Chiesa de la Boston” because he can never bring himself to say “Maestro Fruhbeck”.

    Comment by Don Drewecki — May 10, 2012 at 10:11 am

  11. >> >>  family name included an umlaut
    It may well be that the entire premise here was wrong; see:
    http://www.gluck-gesellschaft.org/hp92/Homepage.htm 

    http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christoph_Willibald_Gluck 

    Comment by david moran — May 10, 2012 at 11:43 am

  12. I’ve become curious enough about the composer’s name issue to do some further research. Mr. Schwindt said “Most likely, Christoph Willibald would have thought of the different spellings as one used ‘when I’m at home,’ and another for ‘when I’m in Vienna/Florence/London/Paris/etc.'”
    He was born in Erasbach, now part of Berching, in Bavaria. That city has a neighborhood with streets named after composers, which can be viewed on Google maps. It contains a Mozartstraße, a Johann-Sebastian-Bach-Straße, a Händelstraße (using the German spelling of his name), a Haydnstraße, a Richard-Wagner-Straße, a Max-Reger-Straße, a Franz-Schubert-Straße, a Beethovenstraße, and a Ritter-von-Gluck-Straße. This last is clearly a reference to the composer Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck (his full name), and it does not contain an umlaut.
    I’d be very interested in any evidence that Mr. Schwindt has to confirm his belief that Gluck had an umlaut “at home” or anywhere else. I don’t believe he did, and I haven’t been able to find any credible references that use an umlaut in his name—including the International Gluck-Gesellschaft and the German Wikipedia pages referred to in David Moran’s comment.

    I hope that Mr. Schwindt doesn’t take this message as “unfriendly,” but I’m sincerely curious about his sources.

    Comment by Stephen H. Owades — May 13, 2012 at 9:50 pm

  13. Ah,
    once again the resources of the web help make for Glück

    Comment by david moran — May 13, 2012 at 11:49 pm

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