Review: The COC's Orfeo ed Euridice

Review: Orfeo ed Euridice
by Christoph Willibald Gluck
with Lawrence Zazzo, Ambur Braid & Isabel Bayrakdarian

Canadian Opera Company Premiere
Production of the Lyric Opera of Chicago
Continues at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre
with performances May 14, 17, 20, 24, 26 & 28 2011

Gorgeous in its dramatic simplicity and atmospheric staging, the COC's performance of the Lyric Opera of Chicago's production of Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice resonates on a deeply emotional level, just as the composer intended.

On a stark stage that serves as the pebbly beach and gravesite of Act I and then the Elysian Fields of Act II, dramatic lighting mutateses from the long shadows of dusk to the eerie glow of the underworld and then back to sunshine at the end. The story unfolds in this minimalist setting - a grief stricken Orfeo buries his beloved Euridice and is tempted to follow her to the grave, only to be given a second chance at happiness by Amore.

The gods have taken pity, but as always with the ancient Greek deities, nothing is simple or straightforwards - most certainly not the path to happiness. There are conditions: he can proceed to Hades and find her if her can charm the Furies with his gift of music, and then bring Euridice back to the world alive, but he must not speak to her or look at her, and worse yet, not embrace her until they have crossed back over the River Styx to the land of the living. Naturally, she's confused and then heartbroken as he ignores her, wondering what cruel fate roused her from her oblivion only to suffer his seeming indifference, and he breaks the promise only to see her die again in his arms...

It's a tour de force for American countertenor Lawrence Zazzo as Orfeo, who appears in every scene and adds a nicely physical sense of drama to his superbly expressive singing. He goes from grief to hope to grief and then joy as the gods finally relent and let him have his darling wife back - but only at the very end, after all his trials and tribulations. It must be an exhausting role, but one he embodies without a false step.

Ambur Braid is appropriately distant and capricious as the goddess Amore, and it's worth the wait until the third Act to hear the dulcet tones of soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian, who matches Orfeo's transparent emotionality in her performance as the other half of this perfectly constant couple. The trio is aided by the COC's talented Chorus, who act as the fellow mourners, Furies and then the spirits of the Elysian Fields with convincing drama, along with the flawless accompaniment of the COC Orchestra under British conductor Harry Bicket.

Gluck wrote the opera in 1762 with the intention of reforming what he saw as opera's overblown production values, overly focused on embellishments and vocal acrobatics. In its very contemporary staging of this Baroque interpretation of classical Greek mythology, the COC keeps the focus directly on an authentic and heartfelt feeling that is the essence of the story, a theme that truly resonates through the ages. Christoph Willibald would have been pleased.

Orfeo ed Euridice
Orfeo: countertenor Lawrence Zazzo
Amore: soprano Ambur Braid
Euridice: soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian
COC Orchestra conducted by Harry Bicket
COC Chorus conducted by Sandra Horst
Robert Carsen: Director/Lighting Designer