‘Orfeo ed Euridice’: Music Transcends A Deathly Concept

Amor (Nadine Sierra) clings to bloodied Orfeo amid architect Frank Gehry's vision of the Elysian Fields. Photos: Matthias Baus, Staatsoper Berlin
Cupid (Nadine Sierra) clings to bloodied Orfeo (Bejun Mehta) amid Frank Gehry’s vision of the Elysian fields.
(Photos by Matthias Baus/Berlin State Opera)
By Rebecca Schmid

BERLIN — The centerpiece of the Berlin State Opera’s Festtage, Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, is an unexpected choice on more than one front. The springtime festival, founded by music director Daniel Barenboim two decades ago, normally revolves around a Wagner production. And none other than the architect Frank Gehry presides over set designs, working in tandem with director and State Opera intendant Jürgen Flimm.

Euridice (Anna Prohaska) and Orfeo (Bejun Mehta), with Cupid (Nadine Sierra).
Euridice (Anna Prohaska), Orfeo (Mehta), and spying Cupid (Sierra).

As seen at the March 18 premiere, the musical side of the evening wins more points than the staging. Barenboim coaxed a flexible but rich sound from the strings of the Staatskapelle Berlin that was well suited to Gluck’s late-Baroque score. In the overture – when Euridice (Anna Prohaska) is rolled out on a stretcher – the orchestra had captured the longing of Orfeo (Bejun Mehta) for his deceased bride that drives the opera, some uneven brass moments aside.

The house chorus, in its opening number “Ah, se intorno a quest’urna funesta,” sang with swelling phrases of great sensitivity, with particularly homogeneous tone in the soprano section. It was disappointing, however, to watch the scene unfold in a morgue-cum-factory where devil worshipers (the Furies) convene after Orfeo decides to descend into the underworld.

After being tied down to a stretcher and stabbed to death, a blood-smeared Mehta raised his head to beg mercy in “Deh placatevi con me.” Cupid (up and coming star soprano Nadine Sierra) is not just a messenger of affection in Flimm’s reading but an orchestrator of terror, strutting onstage in a three-piece suit (costumes: Florence von Gerkan). The creamy, bel canto quality Sierra brought to her aria “Gli sguardi trattieni” was one of many striking ironies in the production

Meanwhile, wedding imagery proliferates ad nauseum. Orfeo clutches Euridice’s bridal gown like a mental patient in the opening scene. In the second act, young, beaming couples raise their arms and legs in angular gestures, eventually surrounding Orfeo in pirouettes that approximate a dance number (choreography: Gail Skrela).

Orfeo (Bejun Mehta) finds Euridice (Anna Prohaska) in her Hades digs.
Orfeo (Mehta) finds Euridice (Prohaska) in her claustrophobic Hades digs.

While the production opts for Gluck’s 1762 “Vienna edition” of the score, more than one dance number of that version is eliminated. In general, it is a shame that so many directors choose not to enrich their stagings with full-scale choreography. The second act nonetheless proves more aesthetically engaging than the first, with a characteristic Gehry structure of interlocking cut-out shapes to represent the Elysian fields.

The third-act set depicts Euridice’s chambers as a claustrophobic hotel room. Here the action reaches its climax as she pushes Orfeo to make eye contact. The exchange was at times more histrionic than profound, but thanks to the sharp musicianship and charisma of the two principals,  it had moving moments.

Prohaska, a leading ensemble member of the Staatsoper, brought a mature timbre to her aria “Che fiero momento,” in which she laments her fate. Mehta, whose recent credits include both starring and acting as artistic adviser in a filmed version of the opera (a DVD on the label Arthaus Musik), managed to put his stamp on the well-known aria “Che farò senza Euridice?,” using portamento in unexpected places but within the bounds of taste. Throughout the production, he made the title character’s desperation credible without tiring the audience.

Cupid (Nadine Sierra) with Orfeo (Bejun Mehta) and wedding dress.
Cupid (Sierra) with mourning Orfeo (Mehta) and the wedding dress.

Unlike the Greek myth on which it is based, Gluck’s Orfeo was conceived with a lieto fine (happy end). Cupid, convinced of Orfeo’s fidelity, restores Euridice to life, and the chorus celebrates the triumph of love (“Trionfi Amore”). Flimm’s staging is steeped in tragedy from start to finish. In the final tableau, Euridice disappears into the shadows (lighting: Olaf Freese) while Orfeo empties ashes from his violin case to a melancholy flute passage imported from the French version of Gluck’s score. Not only has Orfeo lost Euridice but, apparently, the power of his art.

This production never develops symbolic hints such as the violin case into coherent ideas. Orfeo is neither mental patient nor heroic artist. Euridice is a stranded bride with little more than a wedding gown to represent the life she could have enjoyed on earth. Gehry’s sets rely on inconclusive abstraction, creating an aesthetic worthy of his name only in the Elysian Fields.

If the production plays between the boundaries of life and death, heaven and hell, its morbid focus distracts from the undying passion of two beings who, whether together or separated, pine away for each other. Only the Staatskapelle, transforming its traditionally Romantic orchestral sound, the talented soloists, and house chorus allowed for a journey into this complex emotional landscape.

Performances continue March 23 and 27. For details, click here.

Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin. She contributes regularly to the Financial Times, New York Times, Gramophone, Musical America Worldwide, and other publications.

Orfeo (Bejun Mehta), having been tied to a stretcher and stabbed to death, prepares to sing.
Distraught Orfeo (Mehta), having been tied to a stretcher and stabbed to death, begs the Furies for mercy.