By Pierre Ruhe
For the AJC
Atlanta Opera celebrates its 30th year with two milestones. It’s the company’s first venture into “early music” — into an era of opera history that predates Mozart and requires a more concentrated style of musical performance and, perhaps, of listening. The other signal event is the Atlanta Opera debut of superstar countertenor David Daniels, a singer at the pinnacle of his international career — and a lifelong Braves fan — who moved to a condo on Peachtree Street a couple of years ago and made Atlanta home.
The work is Christoph Willibald Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice, ” an 85-minute masterpiece drawn from Greek tragedy. The title hero at the 1762 world premiere was a castrato and it’s a role Daniels calls one of his two all-time favorites.
The role “fits my voice perfectly, ” said the singer, whose range encompasses about the same territory as a female mezzo-soprano’s. “I find the music completely beautiful and emotional and titillating. The scene where Orpheus leads Euridice up from the underworld — and he can’t look at her, and she can’t understand why, and she freaks out — is as riveting as anything in opera.”
Daniels is making himself at home here. After the opera’s artistic administrator, Eric Mitchko, learned Daniels lived in Atlanta, they started planning the singer’s debut. Several Handel operas were discussed, including Daniels’ favorite, the comic “Partenope, ” but they settled on “Orfeo” for practical reasons. With a cast of just three named singers — the title lovers plus Cupid, and a small chorus of shepherds, nymphs and furies — “Orfeo” is relatively inexpensive to produce. The traditional production — in 18th-century attire — is rented from Glimmerglass Opera, a summer festival in upstate New York. Lillian Groag directed the original production and comes to Atlanta to reinterpret this revival.
“Although I have dates booked all over for the next five years, ” Daniels said, “I felt it was important for me to sing more in regional U.S. opera houses to get exposure I might not otherwise get and for them to hear great repertoire they might not know.”
And although Daniels as yet hasn’t been booked to sing again with the Atlanta Opera, he’s spoken to the board of directors and offered to help the company in any way he can — in spreading the word among his peers, in fund-raising at home — and said that they should consider him an enthusiastic Atlantan.
He’s getting entrenched on more personal matters, too. With his partner, Scott Walters, a baritone who sings in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus, Daniels performed a duet of “The Star-Spangled Banner” to open the Gay Pride Festival in Piedmont Park last weekend. He confided he was “more nervous than when I learn a new opera role. The range is so huge” and it was his first national anthem, not the kind of pressure he’s used to
It’s a coup for the Atlanta Opera to book a singer of Daniels’ stature; the production’s conductor, another company debutant, is also a major catch. Harry Bicket, an Englishman, is among the most in-demand early-music maestros on the scene, and he’s got a reputation as a taskmaster when working with “modern” opera orchestras, such as New York’s Metropolitan Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago or the Atlanta Opera.
Daniels and Bicket first worked together in 1996 for the now-legendary Peter Sellars production of Handel’s “Theodora” at the Glyndebourne Festival Opera in England. (Clips from that brilliant show, starring Daniels, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Dawn Upshaw, are on YouTube; the complete performance is on a Kultur DVD.) They’ve performed “Orfeo” together several times and are joined in Atlanta by Katherine Whyte as Euridice and Deanne Meek as Amor. (All three are making their Atlanta Opera debuts.)
Bicket said that when working with an orchestra that has limited experience in so-called “historically informed” performance practices, the trick is “to be careful that if you take something apart, you can put back together again in time for opening night.” Although exact definitions and artistic tastes have evolved over the past three decades, the early-music approach is rooted in the writings of Leopold Mozart (Wolfgang’s father), among others, who stressed articulated bowings for the violins and phrasing that mimicked the natural rises and falls of human speech — the opposite of Romantic-era ideals of opulence, evenness and smoothness.
“There’s a stylistic aspect that’s important to try to capture, ” Bicket said. “Gluck isn’t sophisticated music; like much of the music of his time, especially in France, it’s all based on rhetoric. Perhaps 30 years ago the style sounded dry, but it should be warm and expressive. The music comes as a response to the texts, and Gluck hoped to reform opera by paring away flamboyance and ornamentation to get the pure emotion.”
Still, the conductor insists, “I’m not a ‘vegetarian’ on these matters. The main thing is that the orchestra plays its best.
“‘Orfeo’ is raw and elemental, and a good performance will bring that out.”
Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice”
Atlanta Opera. 8 p.m. Saturday and Nov. 20; 7:30 p.m. Nov. 17; 3 p.m. Nov. 22. $25-$125. Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway. 404-881-8885, www.atlantaopera.org