Some operas have changed musical history: Christoph Willibald Gluck´s "Orfeo ed Euridice" is one of them. Born in 1714, his operatic career started in typical Italian form following the Metastasio model of "opera seria" based on myth or ancient history: recitatives and florid arias generally sung by castrati and sopranos; almost no duets or choirs or ensembles. From 1741 to 1760 he wrote 22. And from 1755 to 1761 a series of nine French comedy operas mainly for Schönbrunn, in a very different style from the Italian ones.
So when we arrive to 1762 he had already created 32 operas in the two predominant styles of those times. He was 48 years old, a mature man. It´s worth mentioning that in 1761 he had composed an astonishing "ballet d´action", "Don Juan" , scenario by Angiolini based on Molière, with very dramatic music in the scene where Don Juan falls to Hell. This showed that the right literary stimulus could change Gluck´s music, and in fact it was the poet Raniero Calzabigi´s libretto on the old Greek myth that compelled the musician to write differently.
Indeed there are basic changes: the melodies in the arias are simple but expressive, with little ornament; there´s a lot of choral writing; and the "recitativo secco" (only with harpsichord) is substituted with the "accompagnato" of strings. The opera is short in three succinct acts, not overlong as many "opere serie" were. There´s a French influence in the inclusion of dances. But Orfeo is still a contralto castrato, not a tenor.
Of course the Orphic myth was essential when opera was invented by the Camerata Fiorentina: Jacopo Peri´s "Euridice", dated 1600, is the first opera that survived those seminal birth years. And Claudio Monteverdi´s "La favola d´Orfeo" (1607, Mantova), was a giant step forward.
Gluck´s "Orfeo..." was called a reform opera, but he came back to Metastasio´s model several times. However, his "Orfeo..." had an impact, even if most composers followed the old model, and in 1767 Calzabigi spurred him on and the composer wrote "Alceste" for Vienna, going far beyond the reforms of "Orfeo...". As Gluck wrote in the preface: "I have striven to restrict music to its true office of serving poetry by means of expression and by following the situations of the story".
And then, from 1774 to 1779, came his period in Paris, where he succeeded Rameau as the greatest creator of French tragic operas, including an adaptation by Moline of Calzabigi´s "Orfeo...". There Orfeo is a tenor, and some wonderful pieces are added: the Dance of the Furies (derived from the closing pages of "Don Juan") and the beautiful Eurydice aria, "Cet asile aimable et tranquille", plus an expansion of the dances in the final Tableau.
Berlioz adapted in 1859 the tenor part to the contralto voice of Pauline Viardot, and a new tradition began. This transposition soon was used also for the Italian version. In fact, many recordings have opted for this change (e.g., Horne with Solti), until more recently historicism tried something else: a countertenor substituting for the castrato. But baritones (Bacquier in BA, Fischer-Dieskau on records) have also sung the part, attracted by its serene beauty. The numerous recordings still list more contraltos than countertenors, and at the Colón from 1924 to 1953 sang contraltos or mezzos; then, Bacquier in 1966 and mezzo Zimmermann in 1977. But in 2009 Franco Fagioli sang the countertenor version at the Coliseo, where the Colón did its season.
And this brings me to the musical side of the current presentation of "Orfeo..." at the Avenida by Juventus Lyrica, for they opted also for a countertenor, Martín Oro. Eurydice has always been sung by sopranos, and Amor is a light soprano, also as usual. The 37-member historicist orchestra conducted by Hernán Schvartzman was very good; it included a cornetto and chalumeau (an early clarinet). Although Oro sang unevenly, with hooty highs, he knows the style; as Maria Goso (Eurydice) showed great improvement compared to her Merry Widow and Victoria Gaeta was sprightly and accurate, and furthermore the Choir under Hernán Sánchez Arteaga was enthusiastic, we seemed to have the makings of a correct evening, but it wasn´t so. A poor version, far too fast, of the famous "Che farò senza Euridice", didn´t help.
Again the culprit was the production, for María Jaunarena had an unfortunate wrong concept. Instead of respecting Calzabigi and Gluck, she invented an ugly transposition to current times. At the start, Orfeo composes helped by a violin. Eurydice salutes him, goes out; a screech and crash: she is dead. Then a medical team attempts to revive a naked girl quite unlike Goso, to no avail, whilst heavy pseudomedical data is both yelled and projected, interfering the brilliant Gluck Overture.
And then, the opera starts, interrupted many times, for Jaunarena has incorporated orphic texts and writings on the Orpheus myth, mostly recited by Oreste Valente in clear Italian, plus several men and women; a particularly tasteless frequent parading of the dead girl was irritating. About twenty minutes of the music are ruined, and as several dances are cut (presumably to spend less), not much was left to be enjoyed. The costumes by Jaunarena are nondescript, and both the lighting and stage designs of Gonzalo Córdova were negative. When you can´t recognize an opera looking at the stage something is seriously amiss. And it was.