Thursday 1 November 2018

A Night Of Gluck Operas - Opera Review

What: A Night Of Gluck Operas (Orphee et Eurydice/Iphigenie en Tauride)
When: 31 October - 4 November 2018
Where: Northcote Town Hall
Libretto by: (O) Pierre-Louis Moline (I) Nicolas-François Guillard
Composed by: Christoph Gluck
Directed by: Kate Millett
Conducted by: James Penn
Performed by: (O) Louise Keast, Alison Lemoh and Rada Tolchalna. (I) Andrew Alesi, Finn Gilheany, Piri Jakab, Jonathon Rumsam, and Erin Towns. (Repetiteur) Pam Christie.
Lighting by: Robin Czuchnowski
Finn Gilheany and Jonathon Rumsam - photo by Burke Photography

Usually when I ask myself why we don't have more opera on stage I realise for me the word opera means those hideous, overblown monstrosities created by Opera Australia and the answer seems obvious. Right now, however, there is a great double bill of Gluck operas presented by BK Opera at Northcote Town Hall which makes me realise we should be seeing so much more of it in this scale across all the stages of Melbourne.

It helps the season revolves around the work of Christoph Gluck. Two of his most famous operas - Orfee ed Eurydice and Iphigenia et Tauride - are perfect compliments to the kind of new work dramas and dance played out on smaller stages and Gluck was innovative in a manner which resonates so very precisely with modernism on stage.

Despite the neo-classical content, Gluck was all about creating reform in opera. He reacted against opera seria and opera buffa. He eliminated the da capo arias and he worked in direct opposition to secco recitative.

Gluck was tired of the dominance and improvisations of the singers. He wanted the music and the voice to be equal contributors. He wanted to reinstate a melody line and his operas were designed so that the music spoke to the psychological states of the characters. Gluck wanted story to dominate.

If you watch movies you understand what Gluck was doing with opera. He got rid of melismas and ritornellos. His librettists wrote lyrics more syllabically so that the words could be heard and understood. Most outrageously (and perhaps less interesting to our modern aesthetic) he got rid of subplots. He just wanted the words and music to tell the story and in Australia, on stages which rarely see this artform, this is exactly the kind of opera we need to see more of.

A Night Of Gluck Operas is a slightly daunting title but don't worry, Millett and Penn have pared both operas down to bare bones - which is quite a feat considering Gluck's own redactive approach. It is very successful in Orfee ed Eurydice but perhaps less so in Iphigenie et Tauride. I don't know if the jumps of logic are due to the editing process or the quite poor surtitles. Either way, I did find it a bit easier to get lost for short moments in the second show (the operas are sung in French).

Regardless, the running time is only 2 hours for both (including interval) so it is a perfect length for an evening of great singing and totally fabulous costumes. There is no design credit but the costumes are epic - as they should be in opera. In Orfee ed Eurydice there are glorious crowns, angel wings, and black caped furies galore. A veritable smorgasbord of sparkle and glamour! Iphigenie et Tauride is a little less glamorous and perhaps less logical but is still full of strong statement pieces.

Millett has taken both operas and given them a very modern alphabet interpretation. Orfee ed Eurydice has Lemoh playing Orpheus opposite Keast's Eurydice. They are both beautiful singers and their duet 'Vieni, appaga il tuo consorte' has the beauty and depth found in Puccini's Madame Butterfly. Casting this opera with a female Orpheus is not completely new - it has been done as far back as 1946 - but it is still intriguing, especially pared with this interpretation of Iphigenie ed Tauride.

My main issue with this opera is the direction. It feels as if it was directed in the round, but the auditorium has been set up as a catwalk thrust. Oddly, a lot of arias are sung to the upstage wall. I really didn't understand it. Having said that the chorus writhed all around the space as the furies so you do have something to look at. I recommend sitting in the main seating block though rather than the sides. This holds true for Iphigenie ed Tauride which, contrarily, was evidently directed for end stage. If you sit on the sides you really do miss a lot of Iphigenia's opening aria.

In Iphigenia ed Tauride Millett has taken the friends Orestes (Gilheany) and Pylades (Rumsam) and made them lovers. Interestingly it works really well - most particularly because of the excellent performances by the singers. On the other hand, as part of his rebellion against opera norms, Gluck deliberately wrote Iphigenie et Tauride without a romantic relationship, becoming the first opera to ever do that. I admit, though, I really liked this version and again, the duet  'Et tu prétends encore que tu m'aimes' was so beautiful it brought tears to my eyes - both of them arguing about which of them would die for the other. This is a bromance which really tugs at the heart strings.

I also need to mention the amazing singing and acting of Towns as Iphigenie. From the moment she steps on stage in only a white shirt with blood streaming down the front she has command of the room. Both in her voice and with her acting she is in total control. This is her world we are in and she will take us on a journey across seas of vengeance and wars of redemption leading to reunification and sacrifice.

A Night Of Gluck Operas is a wonderful night out. BK Opera specialise in creating 'black box' opera and developing young opera talent (it is exciting to see the upcoming talent in the chorus). What they do reminds me very strongly of the work Pacific Opera do in Sydney. Take a chance on this one even if you don't think you like opera. It will surprise you.

3.5 Stars

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