Even as a new production of Orfeo ed Euridice comes to life, it’s instructive to revisit previous takes on the fabled tale of love at any cost. John Eliot Gardiner’s vision is still a pleasure on many planes. First and foremost is countertenor Derek Lee Ragin’s marvelously expressive and diction-perfect portrayal of Orfeo (“Deh! Placatevi con me,” a prime example of the latter; “Che farò senza Euridice?” where each verse raises the emotional impact a compelling notch, a magnificent demonstration of the former). Sylvia McNair brings a charming innocence to Euridice, matching Ragin phrase for phrase in their duet (“Vieni, appaga il tuo consorte”) even as Gardiner and his intrepid English Baroque Soloists provide accompaniment that is frequently far too vertical to complement the forward thrust of Gluck’s deftly orchestrated score.
From the moment she bursts onto the scene, Cyndia Sieden’s Amore is focused and forceful where required and never as harsh as Gardiner’s punchy brass. The famous opening of Act II is far too brutal, producing an Underworld that is brash and rude rather than eerily foreboding. Here, the Monteverdi Choir—as coached—follow suit, resulting in an angry mob where a confident, menacing horde would be preferred. Moments later, all is forgiven in the chorus “Misero giovane” as the gatekeepers of hell gradually yield to Orfeo’s beauty and match it with a heavenly tone and blend fit for the Gods.
Gardiner guides this brilliantly constructed opera (Puccini’s La Bohème returning the favour of never wasting a note and living the notion “less is more”) with feverous conviction but too frequently fails to coerce his talented charges into tidying up the inner voices, breathe “ensemble” with the stage and, maddeningly in the ballets, let the music settle. Perhaps they feared purgatory if their gaze fell on the maestro. JWR