Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice might not be the most popular or bankable of operas – Tokyo’s New National Theatre could only mount three performances of its first-ever production – but there was a lot to look forward to in this new staging, including three major house debuts: director Saburo Teshigawara, distinguished countertenor Lawrence Zazzo and the multi-talented conductor Masato Suzuki, leading the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra in the pit. Somewhat curiously, the production has been billed as the first in the “NNTT Baroque opera series” – composed in 1762, it’s hardly Baroque – but still it was a welcome addition to the company’s underrepresented repertory of pre-Mozart operas.

Rie Miyake (Amore), Valda Wilson (Euridice) and Lawrence Zazzo (Orfeo)
© Rikimaru Hotta

Teshigawara, internationally renowned dancer and choreographer, has turned his attention in recent years to opera, such as his production of Fujikura’s Solaris in Paris. Certainly Orfeo, with many ballet scenes written into the score, was a perfect vehicle to display his creative ideas. He oversaw not only the direction and choreography but also the designs and lighting, so visually the whole staging had a pleasing aesthetic unity. Although he didn’t dance himself, the four dancers – his artistic collaborator Rihoko Sato; Alexander Riabko, from the Hamburg Ballet (who appeared in his dance work Rashomon last year); Joe Takahashi; and Shizuka Sato – not only represented the Nymphs/Shepherds or the Furies in the ballet scenes but also danced in some of the arias, in which they seemed to depict the inner emotions of the characters. (Riabko’s solo dance in the Furientanz music was particularly fine and virtuosic.) The choreography, mainly abstract and always fluid, was perhaps closer to ballet than contemporary dance. I think many ballet and dance fans in the audience enjoyed the production from the dance point of view.

Just as Gluck placed the focus on the drama itself and took out all extraneous and showy elements from his “reform” opera, Teshigawara stripped back the sets to the bare minimum. A large white dish was set at a slanting angle, which seemed to represent Orfeo’s precarious world, and there were huge ornaments of lilies, which seemed to represent the world beyond: decaying lilies for Hades and white lilies for the Elysian Fields. Symbolically, the entirety of Act 3, with Orfeo trying to lead Euridice out of the underworld without looking back, takes place on this large plate, moving around in circles, suggesting that actually there is no way out of this conundrum.

Lawrence Zazzo (Orfeo) and Rie Miyake (Amore)
© Rikimaru Hotta

Musically, it was a tour de force performance by Zazzo, who dominated the stage for most of the opera. He lived through the emotional rollercoaster from mourning to momentary hope, to despair and happiness again, with power and a range of colour. I hadn’t heard him live for several years, but his voice is as warm, smooth and beautifully controlled as I remembered him, and it easily projects to the back of the auditorium. His opening heartfelt cries of “Euridice” pierced our hearts, and “Che farò senza Euridice” was all the more poignant for its simplicity.

Euridice was sung by Australian soprano Valda Wilson. As she only sings for about ten minutes in Act 3 before she dies again, it’s a difficult role for making an impression. She certainly did, however, with her noble, eloquent singing, and her pleas for Orfeo to explain and to show his love were totally convincing. (She also looked lovely in a hydrangea-designed blue dress.) Musically, when the two voices finally came together, albeit briefly, it was a magical moment. Rie Miyake played a light-voiced and coquettish Amore, providing some comic relief to the drama. Did Teshigawara want to emphasize the frivolity of the God of Love?

Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice
© Rikimaru Hotta

The only major reservation I had was the treatment of the chorus, who were clad in black and stood almost invisibly in the shadows throughout. Maybe it was because of the distancing requirements that are still in place at the NNTT, but their singing was not articulate enough and sounded largely monotonous. Meanwhile, in the pit, Suzuki infused a lot of energy into the modern-instrument ensemble (with added chalumeau and cornets for colour), bringing out punchy and well-articulated playing. Placing a small ensemble on stage for the echo effects in Orfeo’s aria “Chiamo, il mio ben cosi” added a nice touch too.

Lawrence Zazzo (Orfeo) and Rihoko Sato (Dancer)
© Rikimaru Hotta

It seemed a lot of thought had gone into how to stage the ending. The unexpected lieto fine is often problematic for the modern audience, and that was obviously the case for the creative team too. Consequently, most of the final dance numbers were moved to elsewhere in the opera, reducing the end to the final chorus. Then, as the stage lights went out, Teshigawara placed the spotlight on Orfeo for a few seconds, who looked confused and unhappy again. This is when we realized that perhaps the drama had come full circle, as the set design suggested, and we were back where we started. Was the drama only in his mind perhaps? It was subtle but thought-provoking ending to a visually and vocally impressive staging.