Friday 31 May 2019

Musical delights: Gluck's Bauci e Filemone and Orfeo

Gluck: Orfeo - Kiandra Howarth, Lena Belkina - The Mozartists (Photo Benjamin Ealovega)
Gluck: Orfeo - Kiandra Howarth, Lena Belkina - The Mozartists (Photo Benjamin Ealovega)
Gluck Bauci e Filemone, Orfeo; Lena Belkina, Rebecca Bottone, Kiandra Howarth, Gwilym Bowen, Ian Page, The Mozartists, dir: John Wilkie; Queen Elizabeth Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 29 May 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A rare version of Gluck's Orfeo revived in this double bill from Classical Opera

Gluck: Orfeo - Gwilym Bowen - The Mozartists (Photo Benjamin Ealovega)
Gluck: Orfeo - Gwilym Bowen - The Mozartists
(Photo Benjamin Ealovega)
Gluck's opera Orfeo ed Eurydice is such a well-known and iconic work that it comes as something of a surprise that Ian Page and Classical Opera gave the UK premiere of a significant new version of the opera, one created by Gluck himself. Yet Gluck's 1769 revision of the work has been strangely neglected. It was created as part of a triple bill of one-act operas, Le feste d'Apollo, and as part of its Mozart 250 project Classical Opera presented two of the three.

So on Wednesday 29 May 2019 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Ian Page conducted Classical Opera in Gluck's Bauci e Filemone and Orfeo, in semi-staged productions directed by John Wilkie. In Bauci e Filemone, Rebecca Bottone sang Bauci, Lena Belkina sang Filemone, Gwilym Bowen sang Giove and Kiandra Howarth sang La Pastorella. In Orfeo, Lena Belkina sang Orfeo, Kiandra Howarth sang Euridice and Rebecca Bottone sang Amore.

Gluck's Le feste d'Apollo was created in 1769 for a wedding in Parma; Filemone et Bauci, Aristeo and Orfeo, and it was the first and third which Classical Opera performed. Filemone et Bauci was written specially in 1769 whereas Orfeo was a revised version of Gluck's 1762 opera Orfeo ed Euridice which premiered in Vienna. One of the reasons for the revisions was that the singer who took the title role in Orfeo in 1769 was a soprano castrato, so Gluck had to raise the solo line somewhat, he also simplified the orchestration (no exotic clarinets or trombones) and dropped the ballet at the end, thus streamlining the drama. So essentially Orfeo represents Gluck's final thoughts on the opera in Italian. (He would, of course, revise it in French for Paris in 1774, and the best known version of the opera remains the one based on Berlioz' synthesis of the French and Italian versions).

Gluck: Orfeo - Rebecca Bottone - The Mozartists (Photo Benjamin Ealovega)
Gluck: Orfeo - Rebecca Bottone
The Mozartists (Photo Benjamin Ealovega)
What is fascinating about Gluck is how the strands of reform and tradition in his music are intertwined, so that he could write more traditional works at the same time as reform ones. Classical Opera's double bill was a case in point, Orfeo is the iconic reform opera, whereas Bauci e Filemone is quite traditional even having a spectacular display aria for the soprano (Bauci).

The evening started with Bauci e Filemone, a charming pastoral work in which the hospitality of a poor young couple Bauci and Filemone wins over Giove who is in disguise, so he officiates at the couple's wedding and their pleas help disperse his anger at the lack of hospitality he received from others. It is a simple tale, enlived by the more dramatic outbursts of Giove, yet the libretto makes it clear that there were probably spectacular stage effects; the thunderstorms for Giove's rage, and the moment he conjures up a temple for the young couple's wedding.

Bottone and Belkina made a charming pairing, the opera is very much about the couple's love with the two singers joining beautifully in their duet. Bottone's account of  Bauci's spectacular aria was impressive, taking in the high tessitura. Gwilym Bowen sang Giove with admirable firmness and not a little bravura, whilst Kiandra Howarth gave a lovely account of her shepherdess's solo.

John Wilkie's production, in designs by Emily Adamson and Philly Noone, was highly traditional and whilst it successfully evoked the story, it did not quite manage to avoid a sense of charming tweeness, which is surely not what Gluck intended. Costuming was somewhat unflattering and Belkina cut a very feminine figure as both Filemone and Orfeo.

We were in a similar world for Orfeo, with Lena Belkina's Orfeo in a tunic and Kiandra Howarth's Euridice in something long and Greek, whilst Rebecca Bottone's Amore was lumbered with a huge pair of wings. Again, the effect veered towards the twee particularly as there were three black-clad actors also floating around making what seemed elaborately affected gestures. Some by-play with what seemed like gladioli (I think they were meant to be palm leaves), also threatened to evoke the ghost of Dame Edna Everage.

I felt that something simpler would have benefited Gluck's music, particularly as we got such a strong and direct performance from Lena Belkina in the title role. She sang with a lovely shapely line, though initially I felt her performance lack the intensity needed. But this was a performance which grew, and by the time we came to the final act she and Kiandra Howarth drew a real sense of drama to the music. Rebecca Bottone was rather hampered both by her wings and the idea of bringing humour into the role, but she sang the music finely.

Ian Page drew wonderful sounds from his orchestra, creating a finely pastoral world in the first half with occasional disruptions from Giove's anger. Page made the opening of Orfeo far more urgent and dramatic, and I only wished that the production had picked up on something of this urgency. Perhaps the opening of Act Two was not quite as astonishing as it could be, but it came pretty close.

Gluck: Orfeo - Lena Belkina - The Mozartists (Photo Benjamin Ealovega)
Gluck: Orfeo - Lena Belkina - The Mozartists (Photo Benjamin Ealovega)
This was an evening of musical delights, and it showed that Gluck's world could be full of colour and drama. It was also a slow build, Bauci e Filemone rarely seemed to rise above the charming and it took time for Orfeo really tell, but the climax in the final act was worth waiting for.

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