Orfeo ed Euridice (Vienna version)
Liebau, Mühlemann; Mehta; Collegium 1704, Collegium Vocale 1704, Luks. Production: Havelka. Arthaus Musik 102 184, 75 mins., subtitled
The sight of an entire orchestra of historical instruments, played by musicians in livery seated at a long desk with candles for illumination, is an unexpected delight of this performance, filmed at Český Krumlov castle. The players, under conductor Václav Luks, are capable of vigorous allegros that never lose beauty of tone, yet they can also raise a nasty racket when appropriate for the underworld. Luks builds the first scene of Act II, which can seem like little more than self-contained blocks of material, into a real theatrical experience, and he finds exactly the right tempo for both the dramatic moment and his singers in the big Orfeo–Euridice duet of Act III.
Ondřej Havelka's film, for which countertenor Bejun Mehta gets a credit as artistic advisor, begins with a silent prologue. Mehta, as the singer who is about to perform Orfeo, is caught unaware by the start of the overture and hastens to complete his preparations, although he seems reluctant to do the show. For the first act, it seems that the performance will be a straightforward stage presentation, with Amore descending on wires, but as Orfeo descends through a trap door for Act II, it turns out that the underworld is the set of passageways and basement rooms of the castle's theater. Here he watches himself in a quarrel with Euridice, surrounded by a zombie chorus. We're back onstage for the Elysian Fields (sweetly designed by Zdeněk Flemming), but the don't-look-back journey is again played backstage. The Orfeo/Mehta figure is so disturbed by the loss that he tries to hang himself from the theater's rafters, and after he is rescued he remains too upset to participate in the happy ending. Instead, he watches from the audience, until Amore (or the singer of Amore) ministers to him, and he retreats, alone, back to his dressing room. Either I didn't understand it, or I'm trying to find more in it than there is. But the visuals, filmed by Jan Malíř, are striking, particularly when the shadows of Orfeo and Euridice entwine but the singers remain apart.
Vocally, Mehta gives a full-out performance, more overwrought and flamboyant than we often get from countertenors. His ornamentation, especially in "Cerco il mio ben così" and in the middle of "Che farò," is so extensive that it amounts to recomposition. The relation to period style can be debated, but the music hardly calls out for this. As Amore, Regula Mühlemann sounds as monochromatic as all singers do in this role, but the Euridice of Eva Liebau is a real find. She has access to more colors in her voice than do most sopranos in this repertoire, and it is hard to think of another singer today who relishes each sound in the Italian language to the degree she does. The tiny chorus of eight singers maintains pitch beautifully. Much of the instrumental music has been cut, even though there are six dancers on hand. But since the work now comes in at seventy-five minutes, this film is something to consider when you are wondering if you have time to listen to a whole opera.
WILLIAM R. BRAUN
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