Ondřej Havelka’s Modern Baroque Love Story

You don't have to wait for Orpheus to return to either the Underworld or to Český Krumlov, thanks to a filmed version of Gluck's Baroque opera.

You don’t have to wait for Orpheus to return to either the Underworld or to Český Krumlov, thanks to a filmed version of Gluck’s Baroque opera.

This is the story behind the story behind the story: Czech jazz/swing musician/director Havelka directs Gluck’s Baroque version of a classic Greek myth … on film.

Got that?

Ondřej Havelka, in addition to his music, also directs films.

He had the opportunity to produce and film Gluck’s Baroque opera Orpheo ed Eurydice (1762) in the classicly preserved Baroque theatre in Český Krumlov.

During last month’s Opera Festival 2015, the film was shown at Aero Kino, followed by a live discussion led by Mr Havelka.

Meanwhile, Backstage …

This wasn’t the first visit for the versatile director Ondřej Havelka; his first attempt to introduce this unique UNESCO treasure on the film screen came in 2011 with the performance of the opera Dove è Amore è Gelosia’ by Giuseppe Scarlatti.

Watch what happens backstage during an authentic Baroque opera, in this Scarlatti opera produced earlier by Mr Havelka.

If you’ve never visited the Baroque Theatre in Český Krumlov (or even if you have), you probably haven’t seen the theatre like this. In this film you can see the ‘virtual reality’ of this well-preserved treasure: the original stage and scenery with their Gardens of Eden, flying birds, and rocking waves. But you also see the space behind, below, or on the way to the theatre.

Orfeus underworld

Creatures from the creepy underworld

The idea to send Orpheus travelling to the underworld through the backstage among the stacked and folded scenery, down to the cellars below, came from countertenor Bejun Mehta’s head, says the director.

And even though Ondřej Havelka was not very excited about it in the beginning, as all the recordings were done at once on the spot with five cameras, he is grateful for his idea now, he told the audience following the February screening.

Rehearsals took place in Prague one month before the shooting. And then the team had only one autumn week to record the opera in the theatre itself.

Onstage (and Under the Stage, Too)

Havelka’s version positioning the surreal underworld in the cellar does not follow Baroque principles. Havelka’s black-and-white to greyish look touches the inner feelings of Orpheus. Simple and airy costumes sometimes highlighted by red also emphasize the core moments for Orpheus and Eurydice.

The devilish beasts have modern costumes and make-up, and their choreographed rage has nothing to do with refined Baroque dance.

In the Classic Story …
Eurydice is bitten by a snake and sent to the underworld. Orpheus is allowed to bring her back to life but mustn’t look at her as she follows him out of Hades. At the last moment, though, Orpheus looks, and Eurydice is snatched back to the underworld. The lovers are separated forever.
In the Havelka Story …
Eurydice dies after she tumbles down during a jealous poking with Orpheus. He brings her back from the underworld but he realizes that this will not work; he leaves her to carry on flirtations and walks away into his future, in tears. No happy end — just an ordinary tale from the present day.
Havelka’s version brings humour to a hopeless love affair, a novel perspective on Orpheus‘s feelings, and modern choreography into Hade’s underworld. It takes you not only on stage but behind the scenery in this museum of a theatre.

Working with cameras that point at close details is quite unusual for a choreographer, and Andrea Miltnerová is used to concentrating on the whole stage which the audience usually captures in a glance. The singers have to noticeably reduce their expression for the camera instead of for the stage.

Choreographer Miltnerová deserves compliments for her patience and spontaneity that helped the singers to be natural and plausible in close-ups.

But space presented still another problem for her.

Later in the story, back on stage Orpheus meets his beloved Eurydice. They are surrounded by dazzlingly happy couples, and the grays give way to pastels and a blooming heaven of historic wooden scenery.

But the limited space on stage was quite a hard nut to crack. To place all the performers in this small space and adjust the authentic dance was not easy, explained Andrea Miltnerová.

Luckily, the final result does not show it.

Eurydice? Pregnant?

Another obstacle appeared when the singer who was supposed to sing Eurydice became pregnant. Even though the young rising star really wanted to go on, the producers withdrew her from the project and invited an older Austrian singer. Soprano Eva Liebau charmed Ondřej Havelka and smoothly supported Mr Mehta.

Bejun Mehta

Tenor Bejun Mehta

Other problems caused this extraordinary project to change its core a few times. None of the invited countertenors was available. The desperate director Mr Havelka, even though it seemed unrealistic, approached the distinguished international star Bejun Mehta, who surprisingly had time and interest in Havelka’s modified plot.

His only request was not to produce yet another staging, but a film. Even though it meant redoing the whole screenplay, Bejun Mehta contributed to an extraordinary performance; his temperament and his hard work kept the the whole film crew spellbound, according to Mr Havelka. He sang all the scenes in full volume, even though some are really demanding for his voice.

The most famous aria, Che Farò Senza Euridice (What Shall I Do without Eurydice), was recorded on five cameras. But in the editing room the team decided to keep only one continuous, gliding shot. It gave a much stronger impression than separate views.

The tear we see running down the countertenor’s face is real. Mr Mehta refused an artificial teardrop and relied on inner feelings. Watch a clip of Mr Mehta’s tearful performance below:


And Then There’s Amore


The clever, capricious Amore adds a touch of humor to the tragedy.

Amore, the clever cupid, had the only scripted part in Mr Havelka’s version. Regula Mühlemann had to follow her part strictly step by step.

There was no time for improvisation, but still, all the gags seemed to be very natural and bright.

Her sudden appearance on a wooden cloud in big gold armour and helmet, both a bit too large, livened up the tearful moment.

Her comic abilities were obvious and sparkling.

As All Baroque Opera: Finally, Harmony Among All

The noted Baroque ensembles Collegium 1704 and Collegium Vocale, with the enthusiastic devotion of their conductor Václav Luks, took hold of the musicians’ contribution and added a fresh sound to the recording.

Together with Bejun Mehta they patiently harmonized the final performance. Mr Mehta’s natural countertenor fluently and naturally melds with the music and the story, and his clear view on the performance added crucial support for Ondřej Havelka.

Orpheus Havelka

Where to See It Again

DVDs of the whole performance are available at Collegium 1704 concerts, on their website, or on the website of ART House Music. If you’re searching for titles, note: Orfeo ed Euridice by Gluck, and in Czech; Orpheus and Eurydice in English.

– Hana Blažková, Opus Osm writer

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