Orpheus and Eurydice: Keeping It Simple

Opus Osm

Orpheus (Roman Janál) has always relied on his enchanting harp skills; but will they help in the Underworld?

‘It is ridiculous to prolong the sentence “I love you” with a hundred notes when nature has restricted it to three.’

That’s what librettist Ranieri Calzabigi (1714-1795) believed, and his colleague, Czech composer Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) agreed.

Together, they became style-makers of the opera world by eventually throwing out old, fussy, and complicated conventions. The beginnings of this trend can be seen in their opera Orpheus and Eurydice, which was presented in February at The Theatre of the Estates.

A re-telling of the ancient myth, this Orpheus opens with the male lead in the depths of despair, mourning the death of his beloved Eurydice. The set is a massive, white, arena-bleacher staircase, with silver handrails, draped in long, spaghetti loops of red rope. The coils often bind and nearly trip Orpheus (Roman Janál, Feb 13), a metaphor for the strength of love’s heart-strings, rather than an actual hazard. Stage director/set designer Hartmut Schorghofer’s repeated color theme here is shocking red, stark white, and black, emphasized by the entrance of Eurydice’s black coffin.

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Roman Janál and Alžběta Poláčková in the title roles

The figure Amor, appearing as a soprano as well as a dancer, offers Orpheus a deal: He can descend to the Underworld and bring his love back, but only if he does not look at Eurydice, nor tell her what the deal is. Naturally, Orpheus decides to summon all his courage and risk the trip.

Here the set changes, with sections of the stairs alternating to slowly rise or sink, and Orpheus explores the dark, mysterious world “under the stairs.” It’s an interesting mix of blackness, mirrors, mud, and even shallow sheets of water, splaying like liquid mirrors themselves when kicked or dashed.

Orpheus finds Eurydice and tries to convince her to follow his averted face and his unrelenting back. The return journey is halting — because who wouldn’t wonder why a beloved rescuer won’t turn around and face someone he’s traveled all the way to the Underworld to save?

How to End?
There are a couple of choices for the end of the story: obviously, the lovers can fulfill all the requirements, make it back to earth and live happily ever after; or Orpheus can steal a quick glance or even finally turn and jump into Eurydice’s arms, thereby damning them both forever; or Orpheus can chicken out and run back up to the sunshine, losing his love forever. Undoubtedly, all these variations, and maybe a few more, have been tried in the story’s long history.

For this production, though, the lovers fail the test. Just as Orpheus is about to commit suicide, Amor takes pity on the pair (“I do not require any further proof of fidelity”) and grants the couple eternal life and love.

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The National Theatre chorus and orchestra round out the musical roles.

Gluck clearly illustrates some of his trend-making “beautiful in simplicity” rules in this opera, not interrupting dramatic action with illogical musical asides and not making the singing an excuse for showing off vocal tricks. The music often acts as a kind of interpreter or intensifier of the action, such as the beautiful, ethereal harp (the icon on the current production’s poster) alternating with blaring trombones and cornets, played on the same note or a half tone higher, as the chorus darkly intones “No! No!”

If you’re looking for an opera that’s not Mozartian-long, with no convoluted story or silly sub-plots, this production of Orpheus and Eurydice may be it. This is the original version premiered in Vienna in 1762, but in a modern transcription for baritone; it’s sung in Italian, with Czech and excellent English surtitles. A detailed program book is available in English for 60 kč. — oo

Further performances of Orpheus and Eurydice are scheduled for April 10, May 16, and June 25 at the Theatre of the Estates.

– Mary Matz

Photo Credits: The National Theatre Opera

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