Lawrence Zazzo (Orfeo) and Isabel Bayrakdarian (Euridice) Photo: Michael Cooper
Gluck: Orfeo ed Euridice
Canadian Opera Company
Four Seasons Centre May 8, 2011
by Joseph K. So
Lawrence Zazzo (Orfeo)
Isabel Bayrakdarian (Euridice)
Ambur Braid (Amor)
Harry Bicket, conductor
Robert Carsen, director
Tobias Hoheisel, Set and Costume Designer
Robert Carsen/Peter Van Praet, Lighting Designer
Music has the power to tap into our subconscious and allow our deepest emotions to bubble up to the surface. When music is coupled with imagery as in staged opera, its power is multiplied many fold. Sometimes, a turn of a musical phrase or a specific stage action can trigger an unexpected emotional response in the listener/viewer. During the opening performance of the Gluck opera last Sunday, at the precise moment when Euridice and Orfeo came face to face and she died in his arms, the stage lighting abruptly and dramatically dimmed. I remember thinking to myself - 'ah, the light had gone out of Orfeo's world!' The effect was galvanizing - I felt as if I've been punched in the stomach, overwhelmed by a feeling of sadness and loss. I left the opera house that afternoon, with a renewed sense of wonder and appreciation for the power of music, and for the men and women of genius who bring the work to life, in this case Robert Carsen. The Canadian director and set and costume designer Tobias Hoheisel have created a production that is timeless, sparse, and devoid of the trappings of grand opera, focusing instead on the emotional core of the music and the action that best serve this ancient myth. As someone who is in his fifth decade of attending live opera, I admit to being rather tradition-bound in my personal taste of productions. Contemporary re-imaginings that I've encountered are sometimes appreciated on an intellectual level, perhaps even grudgingly and any emotional heart strings are left un-tugged. As a Wagner and Strauss fan, I've often found the formalism of Baroque rather limiting in its emotional impact. Now I realize that in the right hands it can be every bit as powerful and timeless. This Orfeo was one of only five or six performances in a life-time of opera-going that had such a powerful impact. I feel privileged to have experienced an epiphany at the opera.
While much of the credit goes to the creative team of Carsen, Hoheisel, and lighting designer Peter Van Praet, kudos must also go to the singers - soloists and the chorus - for bringing the concept to life. Particularly impressive was the magnificent performance of American countertenor Lawrence Zazzo, who was on stage virtually the whole 80 minutes with no intermission. His Orfeo was a tour-de-force, combining beauty of tone with a searing intensity that left one breathless. As Euridice, soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian had much less to do, but she was perfect as the doubting wife, singing beautifully and only betraying signs of strain in a couple of fortissimo passages. The third character in this opera is Amor, ably played and acted by COC Ensemble Studio soprano Ambur Braid. Amor in this production is an "Orfeo double" in the first half and an "Euridice double" near the end of the opera. This gender ambiguity is unfortunately not really explained in the Director's Notes in the program, leaving it open to interpretation. Perhaps Amor's assumption of human form underscores the god's empathy for the mortal's capacity for love and self sacrifice. Carsen is to be commended for going straight to the heart of the work. His absence from the COC has been far too long, and let's hope we will be experiencing his productions again very soon. The chorus under Sandra Horst never sounded better; and while the COC Orchestra isn't exactly a baroque band, under the expert baton of Harry Bicket, the orchestra sounded most convincing. All in all, this Orfeo - and the 2010-11 season in general - is decidedly a high water mark in the history of the Canadian Opera Company.