Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice”
Atlanta Opera. 8 p.m. Nov. 20 and 3 p.m. Nov. 22. Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway. 404-881-8885, www.atlantaopera.org.
By Pierre Ruhe
A few years ago, soon after countertenor supremo David Daniels moved into a condo on Peachtree Street, the Atlanta Opera jumped at the first chance to book the star singer for its own stage. He has starred at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, along with most of the important opera houses in the world, and has sold out Atlanta’s Spivey Hall, proof of a devoted local following.
He is all but unmatched in the heroic countertenor repertoire, and landing him was a major next step in the development of the Atlanta Opera as it moves from local to regional to, one day, a national presence.
Daniels’ debut in Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice,” in a compelling and often beautiful production, counts as a milestone for the company. With two performances remaining, it should not be missed.
“Orfeo” is the Atlanta Opera’s first foray into pre-Mozart repertoire and is sung in the original 1762 version, with a few numbers from the composer’s later additions. At that world premiere, the hero Orpheus was a castrato — a singer unmanned before his voice broke in puberty, who grew into the vocal heft of a man but with the voice range of a woman. It’s a specific category lost forever but which Daniels restores, or approximates, convincingly, sensationally, well.
As his hell-and-back wife Euridice, Katherine Whyte sang with a very pretty but plain soprano, full of vigor and eager to communicate. Deanne Meek sang the silver-winged god Amor with elegance.
Harry Bicket, an energizing conductor and a master of historically informed style, accompanied the singers marvelously and had the modern-instrument opera orchestra sounding lean and pungent. Walter Huff’s chorus, which danced sweetly, also touched the sublime in “Torna, o bella.” (Is there a better opera chorus in America?)
The physical production, rented from Glimmerglass Opera, is mostly a treat. Costumes designed by Constance Hoffman tell us we’re in Gluck’s mid-18th century. And the sets designed by John Conklin show his penchant for broken ancient architecture and suggest a classical society that lies in ruins.
Directed by Lillian Groag, the show balances some stuffy literalism — the big rubber snake that kills Euridice is hacked to death and tossed off stage — with potent images, as when the peasant farmers hold their scythes at attention, and the farm tools at once signal the arrival of Death and look like black banners waving in the breeze.
Yet Groag’s direction — aside from Daniels’ own forceful portrayal — didn’t tap the dark psychology of the opera. Whyte’s Euridice, as she pleads for her husband to look at her, got a laugh from the audience, as if she were merely a shrewish and unreasonable wife. Groag didn’t poke fun at the story, but neither did she do her job and make us always believe in the drama. Thankfully Daniels, who is one stage for almost the entire 90-minute opera, keeps us rapt.
Pierre Ruhe blogs about opera on ArtsCriticATL