Not daring enough
The Israeli Opera's latest production of 'Orfeo ed Euridice' fails to reveal the secret of a happy marriage.
Many people are familiar with this scene from cheap televisions series: A young woman prepares dinner for herself and her husband, sets the table for two, puts on a sexy evening dress for him - and he doesn't show up. Usually the young husband is a police detective who is busy saving the world from a sick murderer (who is nothing but an alter ego of the husband character ) and in any case he is late for perfectly innocent, exalted reasons while the nagging wife thinks only about herself and her holy dinner and - judging by her tight and revealing dress, to the viewers' delight - perhaps also about the bedroom after dinner.
A scene of just this sort, to the sounds of an orchestral overture, opens the opera "Orfeo ed Euridice" in the latest production at the Israeli Opera, directed by Mariusz Trelinski. However, in a variation on the television series, the woman sitting in the red dress at the table set for two does not confine herself to blaming her young husband and extorting guilt feelings from him when he comes home, but rather smashes the goblet of wine she has prepared for him, slits her wrist with the shards of glass and later, in the bedroom - the main set for the opera - she swallows pills and dies.
The whole character of the production is already visible in this opening scene. On the one hand there is much beauty: an asymmetrical set at the center of which is the large bedroom, with the other parts of the house to the left. To the right, outside the house, the boundaries of which are marked by a door, is a path leading out; a window with a curtain waving lightly in the wind and a wall mirror that later opens to mysterious, dark and sinister visions in somber colors. All of this has taste, imagination and beauty.
On the other hand is the stage noise that doesn't let up: The opera directors of the world can be sorted into two categories - the ones who have women crawl on the stage and press them up against walls, and the ones who make do with them singing standing upright. Trelinski is numbered among the first group and here, even before there is a chance to breathe a bit and warm up, the young woman is running about, cutting herself, flinging her arms in the air, smearing the blood from her veins on the walls, rolling around on the floor and gulping from a bottle with the movements of someone who has run amok.
True, in opera over-acting is a convention but here it is oppressive in its excess and pathetic, from the first scene to the last.
The opening scene also reveals the director's version of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice: It is not the gods and their caprices who have brought about the young wife Eurydice's death but rather she herself - meaning she has become an active character, a character who has a will of her own and the power to decide and change a reality. Eurydice here is not a mere ornament, not just a means aimed at establishing Orpheus' greatness, and the power of love and music that can open the gates of the underworld and revive the dead.
Thus, says Trelinski, this is not a myth you have before you, but rather a story from life. And its plot is symbolic: suicide, death, the descent to the underworld, the look in Orpheus' eyes as he turns around and looks at S Euridice, disobeying the command of the Gods and thus sealing her destiny to die forever as he closes off the chance of continuing their life together - all of this is just a representation of the crisis that overtakes the couple, following which each of them goes his or her own way to self-discovery, to face the test, to mature - and thus to become worthy of each other and of true love.
But the opera presented in Tel Aviv does not end that way. After the circles of hell, literally, through which the two of them go, after the torments of Hades their relationship breaks down once and for all. Because of hubris, sin and pride; because of Eurydice's lack of belief in love, in her ability to trust Orpheus and cast her lot with him, and her refusal to believe he is leading her safely - and because of Orpheus' hubris, the forbidden glance, the turning to look back that derives from his immature succumbing to an urge or admission of the fruitlessness of the relationship and his wife's ruination. The result is that the two separate forever.
To the sounds of the closing, stormy hypnotic music and the devastating dance by the Furies who take on Eurydice's image and rage, whether in reality or in the imagination of the defeated Orpheus, the curtain comes down on the performance and on their love.
But what is this? Upon leaving the Performing Arts Center, deep in the darkness, almost as far as the bridge leading to Dubnow Park, celestial sounds can be heard. The street cellist who awaits the consumers of music after every concert in Tel Aviv and continues to play for them passages from the music they have just heard in order to earn his pittance is playing "The Dance of the Blessed Spirits" from Gluck's "Orfeo ed Euridice." I swear: There is no music in the world more beautiful than this, more wonderful than "The Dance of the Blessed Spirits." It is the embodiment of "noble simplicity," Gluck's stylistic ideal. It is pure perfection.
But hang on a minute - this music was not played at all in the opera! Every beginning opera lover knows it and so - where did it disappear to in the production? Why wasn't it included?
Here the history of Gluck's opera enters the picture. After its premiere in Vienna in 1762, the composer dared to offer it to the Paris Opera - after he had already suffered searing failures in the French capital - and he introduced a number of changes into it prior to its performance there. Some say the changes were introduced in order to conform to "French taste" and perhaps this is true: In general Gluck based his opera on the French ideal and accordingly avoided rigid formal elements like the aria da capo and the recitativo secco, and expanded the role of the chorus and the dance segments. "The Dance of the Blessed Spirits" was therefore composed to this end.
However, the most far-reaching change he introduced into the opera was its denouement. In the version Gluck prepared for the Paris Opera two years after the premiere of "Orfeo ed Euridice" in Vienna, he added a scene: Amor, the goddess of love, appears suddenly at the end of the opera in an act of deus ex machina, an arbitrary moment at which some god ("deus" ) comes down from the sky at the last moment (with the help of a stage contrivance - the "machina" ), forgives the protagonists and untangles the plot with a flick of the wand that is ostensibly justified neither in terms of the structure nor of the contents.
The goddess praises Orpheus for his tremendous love and devotion to his wife, and rescinds the evil decree. Eurydice is restored, accordingly, to her beloved and thus in its Parisian version the opera culminates with a happy ending, in a song of praise for the power of love and the gods. Originally, since during the Baroque period operas were performed in honor of the emperor's or the king's birthday, this solution praised the ruler's kindness and his power of forgiveness toward his subjects.
What an opportunity to be truly modern would Trelinski have been given had he used the Parisian version! What begins in his staging as the basing of the hero's and the woman's humanity and the establishment of the equality between them recedes, leaving Orpheus as the sole protagonist. This could have been a kind of operatic fable like Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut," a film in which the plot shows the identity crisis of a young married couple and how they overcome it because of love - through a truly infernal crucible of purification each of them goes through until they have matured and learned, and become worthy of simple everyday love and hence of each other.
A more antique example is Mozarts' opera "the Magic Flute," in which a couple also faces mystical testing in order to become worthy of each other and of human love. In both cases there is recognition of the supremacy of the seemingly gray or discouraging reality over fantasies. But this baggage was beyond Trelinski's powers. Gluck himself gave Trelinski a ladder with which to climb down from the ending he chose: an ending from which there is no way out, a blocked, sealed ending that leaves no hope, an ending that is itself hubris, an ending that denies the power of love as true to a supposed reality and an ending that shows a lack of understanding of the artistic experience, Western dramatic art's need for a "reprise:" a return to the starting point after change and catharsis.
In turning his back on Gluck's revision, Trelinski too is punished: In the absence of "The Dance of the Blessed Spirits" from his production of the work he has torn out its soul and its heart. The major success of "Orfeo and Euridice" at the Israeli Opera was the cast of soloists - all of them Israelis. The two sopranos alternating in the role of Eurydice were wonderful: The restrained and tragic Hila Baggio radiate love and real distress while Claire Meghnagi was a strong Eurydice, demanding of Orpheus love and devotion and contributing even more to his weakness and tentativeness. Baggio and Meghnagi are truly exciting singers. And there were also two wonderful singers in the role of Orpheus, both of them countertenors and each of them with his own strengths and weaknesses: Yaniv d'Or has a charismatic presence and a big voice that demands the audience's attention - but it is a pity he took the notion of exaggerated acting too far and did not leave a moment for pausing, pondering and simple poetry. And alternately, the refined and sensitive Alon Harari, whose voice is orphic in its beauty and clarity, was not at all a tragic figure and his performance failed to convey convincingly the disaster that befalls the character and the conflict he faces.
Amor, performed enchantingly by another two excellent singers, Dana Marbach and Hila Fahima, completed the cast, an operatic cast worthy of any respectable fur-clad bourgeois premiere; a cast that ultimately received worthy accompaniment from the opera's chorus and the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon Letzion conducted by David Stern. Perhaps another drop of daring by an Israeli director was also needed.