domingo, agosto 30, 2009

Opera: new start for the Colón

An event marked the world of opera in our midst in recent weeks: finally, after interminable 22 months, the Colón presented an opera to its public, albeit of course at the Coliseo: Christoph Gluck´s "Orfeo ed Euridice". "Orfeo…" was the choice of Mario Perusso when he was last year in charge of the Artistic Direction during Horacio Sanguinetti´s tenure as Director General of the Colón; it was maintained in all its particulars by Pedro Pablo García Caffi, who now jointly holds the posts of General and Artistic Director. It was plausible to offer it, as our main opera organization hasn´t done it since 1977, and it is undoubtedly an important title in operatic history. And it seemed to have some substantial positive points: a title role (Orfeo) sung for the first time here by a countertenor (Franco Fagioli) instead of the habitual mezzosoprano; a cast made up of three international Argentine singers; a conductor making his B.A. debut after decades of specializing in the eighteenth-century repertoire (Arnold Östman); and a proved producing team (Roberto Oswald and Aníbal Lápiz). Nevertheless, I was partially disappointed.

Of course, the mere fact that the Colón is giving us opera with a decent level after such a long wait is something to rejoice about. But there were problems. First, the performing edition. The 1761 Vienna version in Italian, although initially unsuccessful, is a landmark: Gluck, with his librettist Raniero de´ Calzabigi, produced the first reform opera. Called "azione teatrale" (theatrical narrative), it shows in six succinct tableaux the story of Euridice retrieved from death by Orpheus, again dead through Orpheus´ disobedience to Hades´ strictures and finally saved by Amor (Cupid). Gluck, by then a seasoned operatic composer, had followed hitherto the general rules of the current florid and often superficial Italian style (the glories of Handel were decades in the past); he rebelled against it and produced a noble, lyrical, simple score, aiming for sincerity and musical lines true to the poetry. Although he made his point, there are flaws: too short (only 70 minutes), Euridice left with no singing at all during the first two acts, and a lack of contrast that made for monotony.

He rewrote it in French for Paris in 1774, certainly ameliorating it: he added a lovely aria for Euridice in the second act ("Cet asile aimable et tranquille"), and crucially in Hades the magnificent Dance of the Furies taken bodily out of the concluding part of his own reform ballet "Don Juan". Common practice during the twentieth century (the Colón included) added those pieces to the Italian version (translating the Euridice aria) and it was certainly for the better. The hand programme announced the Dance of the Furies and eight dancers, but with no explanation it was not performed. Internal problems or a last-minute Östman decision to stick to the strict Italian version? But he allowed a gross distortion: the inclusion of a florid Gluck aria of another origin adapted for Orfeo at the end of the First Act, which in the very words of Ramiro Albino (the author of the programme notes) "is impregnated by those Baroque elements so criticized by Gluck and Calzabigi". And Östman left out the Euridice aria.

Granted, the Colón Orchestra isn´t Gluckian in style, but I had hoped Östman would instill the right phraseology. No true historicist performance can be done without the proper instruments, and of course the Colón doesn´t have "chalumeaux" (old-style clarinets of limited register) or "cornetti" (wooden trumpets). But I had hoped for crisper articulation and some Baroque intensity; what I heard was bland and monotonous, though not unmusical. The Choir was correct under Salvatore Caputo (his swan song, for he is departing from his post).

Of course, Gluck couldn´t change in Vienna the fact that a castrato would sing Orfeo, and that was certainly against his desire for realism. Nowadays it is certainly more plausible, if we are to respect the original "tessitura", to have it sung by a countertenor rather than by a mezzosoprano. Franco Fagioli is certainly a good one; he´s having a brilliant European career. He certainly sings well and has a wide register, though his timbre isn´t always ingratiating. Virginia Tola is enjoying quite a success in concerts with Plácido Domingo, but that doesn´t make her an Euridice: her timbre and style are nineteenth-century and in such terms she is quite a good singer, but her vibrato and phrasing are not for Gluck. She looks beautiful and acts with conviction. Beauty is also a quality of Paula Almerares, though I don´t imagine Amor (or Cupid) looking like a lovely blonde in party dress. Her voice sounded diminished, as if her recent exertions as Lucia had tired her, but she sang nicely.

Oswald offered a handsome Greek unit set, hardly convincing as both Hades and the Elysian fields. The proceedings were glacial and conventional (except the crucial misstep of having Euridice enter majestically at the very beginning and suddenly drop dead). There were yards of white and black material in the clothes designed by Aníbal Lápiz, some agreeable and some absurd (a few of the dancers seemed to wear diapers). I disliked Orfeo´s outfit (maroon and black) and a black cape whose only purpose seemed to be something for the Furies to hold on.

The choreography by Lidia Segni followed academic lines, sometimes too mannered. The dancers complied.

For Buenos Aires Herald