In the bizarre and fascinating history of opera, composers unexpectedly appear who completely change the course of the art. It doesn't happens overnight, and the musical trailblazer may not even know what he's doing or where he's going, but Christoph Willibald Gluck changed opera forever. He started a revolution.
Orfeo (1762) didn't completely transform the royal entertainment after its Vienna premiere, but the work solidified certain ideas Gluck had been tossing around for years. A successful composer of fashionable opera seria, he had grown tired of the demands of the superstar castrati, who only wanted firework showcases for their prodigious vocal talents. Who cared what the vehicles were, the audience was there to see them. They were rock stars, they were Kardashians, only with a lot more talent.
Gluck had written some 35 previous works for the stage, was the Kapellmeister at the Austrian court, had taught Marie Antoinette to play the harpsichord, had traveled to London and Italy. But he was unhappy with the state of the art. Florid singing was one thing, but couldn't it serve the story? And dancing, which he loved, couldn't it, too, be an integral part? An opera didn't have to exist solely for the singers to preen, did it? Why couldn't the orchestra play continuously? Let's make the work a complete whole; where everything works together. What a novel idea! Richard Wagner would later blare forth in numerous pamphlets and treatises to call this a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total melding of everything that makes a stage drama – music, book, sets, lighting, dance, performance.
In 1760 Paris, this idea was absolutely alien and cause for alarm, especially espoused by a German. Opera patrons rebelled. There were fist fights in the audience during Gluck's Iphigenia (1774), much like the pandemonium caused by Diaghilev for his Paris production of Stravinsky's Firebird in 1910. Keep everything how we've always done it, the old guard shouted. What do you mean there's no repeat or another flashy song or more ornamentation? We go to the opera to applaud our favorites and be seen. Who cares about the story, or if the music expresses anything? Do you like my waistcoat?
Gluck would have none of this. Somehow he knew what the moribund art form needed. With his librettist Ranieri Calzabigi (a best bro of Casanova), without whom he wouldn't have dared this audacious step, Gluck forged ahead with his ideas of the perfect opera. Eventually, the audience came around. Unfortunately, it wasn't in his lifetime, but that's the fate of explorers and dare devils.
Stately and austere, Orfeo ed Euridice, by all scholarly accounts the oldest standard in the opera rep, has everything Herr Gluck wanted. What luscious melodies! What drama personified! Even two ballets! Sure, it's based on Greek legend – the bane of opera seria – but this time the music really does express what's going on in the characters' inner minds. It sounds like what they're feeling. How refreshing. Not one to completely buck the system, Gluck used an alto castrati in the role of Orfeo in Vienna, but for the Paris version in 1774 he changed Orfeo to a tenor (the Paris audience didn't like their males altered). In the famous 1859 revival, composer Hector Berlioz transposed Orfeo to a contralto (or mezzo), and that's the way it's been sung ever since.
Gluck's Orfeo is a blast of fresh air. It will always be. It's a classic of its kind, albeit an early exemplar, but a classic nonetheless. It is simple and pure, ravishing in its simplicity, pure melody and pure expression. Opera in the Heights produces a lovely rendition, formal and clean, updating the antique but not making it too cluttered to harm the old opera's impact. OH, under Leslie Swackhamer's compressed direction, turns Gluck into gold.
Under maestro Eiki Isomura, the orchestra has never sounded so focused. The woodwinds, especially flutist Wendy Bergin, who has that iconic solo in the famous “Dance of the Blessed Spirits,” are clean and immaculate. And the lovely passage that introduces the “Elysian Fields” interlude is especially striking in its delicate shimmer of bird calls and rushing water. Down the line, this is ensemble playing of fine caliber. Choreographer Krissy Richmond overlays the opera with an ease of movement that befits Gluck's refined classical style.
But the evening belongs to mezzo Laura Coale, a former OH chorus member, who sings Orfeo with stunning clarity and emotional heft. Holy Gluck, where have you been, Ms. Coale? If this isn't a star turn, I don't know what is! She's phenomenal – with a powerful, expressive, radiant, and unfettered voice. There's not a falter, waver, quaver, quiver to her. A lovely actor to boot, she looks great in a tuxedo. Her Euridice, soprano Yunnie Park, while no Oscar winner, has a rich, smooth finish to her voice, like delicious hollandaise. She makes the most of her glorious Act II temper tantrum, when she chides Orfeo for not looking at her. Little does she know that Orfeo, under Love's command, may not glance at her as he leads her out of the Underworld or else she will go back from whence she came. Amore, the only other leading role in the opera, is slyly portrayed by soprano Julia Fox. Foxy she is, as she vocally winks at us as she expounds Love's deepest meaning while looking at us askance. Dressed to the nines in spectacular wings and Grecian bling (thank you, costumer Barry Doss), Fox seems to know more about the sexy mysteries of love than anyone else on stage. What word would the Greeks have for her?
The OH chorus is ultra-fine, too, smooth and lustrous, which is saying something because they've been so consistently good all season. Maestro Isomura deserves our thanks. OH ends its 20th anniversary season (!) on a particularly high note. Bravo to all!
Orfeo ed Euridice continues on April 14 and 16 at Opera in the Heights, 1703 Heights Boulevard. For more information call 713-861-5303 or visit operaintheheights.org. $13-$63.