Unless you’re especially serious about opera you are forgiven if hearing the name of Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) brings up only a hazy recognition. He is one of those figure who hovers in the backgrounds of the biographies of greater names, who came into fashion about 10 years before the death of Bach, and more or less retired about the time Mozart began to find his voice. On Sunday afternoon there was an opportunity to learn much more about Gluck at very little risk, as conductor Edward Elywn Jones gathered the Harvard University Choir, the period ensemble Grand Harmonie, and three fine soloists to present a free concert version of Orfeo ed Euridice at Harvard’s Memorial Church.
Orfeo ed Euridice is another instance of the famous story of the musician who descends into the underworld to retrieve his wife, but who must not look at her until he brings her back to our world. The Orpheus story is responsible for what we now think of as opera: Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo is commonly cited as the first opera, and if not that, it’s Peri’s Euridice. Looking forward, it is Gluck’s opera that Offenbach parodies in Orpheus in the Underworld. It has many unique qualities that make it fascinating, at least through the first two acts. Gluck is generous and canny in his use of orchestral color: the opera opens with an overture that recalls Monteverdi in its brassiness and whose texture surely influenced Mozart when he wrote Don Giovanni. In the second act Orfeo’s harp comes to the fore—literally in this case, as harpist Olivia Lawson rolled her instrument down the main aisle and set it up dead center, right next to Jones—and three (un-danced) ballets ensue, to conjure hell wordlessly. First it is grim and heavy and maestoso; then slashing with first ascending then descending scales; then finally filled with wild dancing and otherworldly ascending glissandi in the low strings.
The work is firmly focused on Orpheus, sung with pathos and resolve by Semper Opera mezzo-soprano Julia Mintzer. There are only two other soloists: Amor (or Cupid), sung by versatile soprano Margot Rood, and Euridice herself (peripatetic Cambridge soprano Amanda Forsythe) who only appears in the final act. The chorus takes on various roles: as mourners commiserating with Orpheus at the beginning; as the denizens of hell; and occasionally as the conscience of the audience reacting to the story. This economy of vocal resources is in contrast by Gluck’s inventiveness in the first two acts. Brief but expertly shaped arias alternate with choral responses and with recitatives that are striving to become arias themselves, swelling into broad, melodic phrases. In this blurring of aria and recitative we look past Mozart to the through-composed operas of the 19thcentury. While never deep, the opera is sure-handed and fast-moving out of the gate, despite the need for Orfeo to declare his devastation at quite some length. His very first word is “Euridice”, repeated three times, sung out while the chorus is also singing, a striking effect that draws attention and gives the sensation of interruption while without causing any serious disturbance. Mintzer’s singing of this music of dejection was thoughtful and original, paying close attention to the text, projecting dignity in the midst of loss. Rood’s appearance as Amor immediately livened the scene: the contrast was almost blinding, Rood was bright, high, clear and hopeful where Mintzer had been dusky and low and sorrowful.
By intermission, we had been through mourning and hell, Orfeo had won out and just found his Euridice, and now…. somehow Gluck doesn’t quite bring it all together. After this whirlwind, the third act comes almost to a halt for extended duet of alternating recitative and aria between the rejoined lovers. Euridice cannot understand why Orfeo will not look at her. Orfeo never explains exactly what the problem is, reduced to asides about how tortured he is and exhortations to Euridice to keep on moving. I found it best not to read the (beautifully printed) libretto through this scene, as the text comes dangerously close to bickering. (Orfeo: “Do come, and be silent! Come, do your husband’s bidding!” Euridice: “No, death is dearer to me than life with you!”) It was enough to listen and enjoy the play of emotion between Mintzer and Forsythe. Forsythe’s Euridice made the most of what Gluck gave her, finding unexpected motivations behind Euridice’s repetitions of distrust and concern, and producing music that echoed Mintzer’s, but with a bright edge around it. But after many minutes of recitative and aria, one finally notices the chorus standing silent and remembers how much fun it was when they were singing along too…
The sad story plays itself out: Euridice falls, Orfeo looks back, she dies. Then Orfeo attempts to kill himself so he can join her. This is more or less how Monteverdi’s opera ends, though there’s no suicide, just Apollo escorting Orfeo to heaven. In this case, Amor rushes immediately to assume the role of deus ex machina before we have a chance to get too upset, ushering Euridice right back on stage saying “you have suffered enough for my glory.” Everything ends happily and noisily, the chorus finally rejoining the group, singing joyfully in platitudes (“Jealousy consumes and devours, but faith restores.”).
But a little dramatic weakness in the third act didn’t dull the shine on a thoroughly enjoyable performance. Jones kept the proceedings moving without ever pressing, and Grand Harmonie made some spectacular sounds: from string ensemble work that was fragile and glassy to period wind hell-music that got a little imprecise, but was gratifyingly raunchy. And it bears repeating that the Harvard University Choir sang with such tonal polish and personality that they were missed when they went quiet. I might have asked for a bit more edge and nastiness when the music suggested it, but it might have felt out of place in Memorial Church. The sanctuary was not an ideal venue: it was hard to see the orchestra, and the absorbent acoustic made it easy for the orchestra to cover Mintzer in her lowest (and most plaintive) register.
Once heard, Orfeo et Euridice doesn’t prompt the listener to replay it for deeper discovery. But it was a great pleasure to hear it once, and it invites study of Gluck’s other rarely heard pieces, to see where else his inventiveness led him.