It is a rosy time for Dutch opera directors. Last month, Lotte de Beer was awarded an International Opera Award for Best Newcomer. Currently, the Nederlandse Reisopera is touring the country with a wondrous production of Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice by another young director, Floris Visser. Any major opera house would be proud to present this ravishing and insightful production; that the Nederlandse Reisopera mounted it on a reduced budget savaged by recent subsidy cuts is particularly praiseworthy.

Kristina Bitenc (Eurydice) and Hanna Herfurtner (L'Amour) © Marco Borggreve | Nederlandse Reisopera
Kristina Bitenc (Eurydice) and Hanna Herfurtner (L'Amour)
© Marco Borggreve | Nederlandse Reisopera

Using the 1774 version, written for the French high tenor voice type known as haute-contre, Mr Visser presents a deeply affecting conceptualisation of Orpheus, with an estimable Samuel Boden in the unforgivingly demanding role. Neither hero nor death-vanquishing artist, this Orpheus is simply a young bridegroom who loses his wife on their wedding day. The trauma splinters his psyche, which he tries to heal by disassociating himself from reality. In a series of fantasies, he resuscitates his bride and revises his wedding day with a happy ending. In between these therapeutic flights he is jolted into reality, where he repeatedly tries, and fails, to commit suicide. According to the programme notes, Plato’s Symposium provided Mr Visser with the key to the myth: the gods refuse to return Eurydice to Orpheus not because he disobeys them and looks back at her on their way out of Hades, but because he is not ready to die for her. In the libretto Orpheus decides to kill himself after his bride dies for the second time, but Cupid stops him and returns her to him. In this production Orpheus finds the courage to choose death, rejoining Eurydice, or at least erasing his pain. The final chorus “L’Amour triomphe” is dropped: love does not triumph. Cupid is just Orpheus’ alternative personality. Also dressed in a wedding suit, but with wings that enable him to flee the horror of his grief, he is the carefree Orpheus that goes on to live happily with Eurydice.

Samuel Boden (Orphée) and Kristina Bitenc (Eurydice) © Marco Borggreve | Nederlandse Reisopera
Samuel Boden (Orphée) and Kristina Bitenc (Eurydice)
© Marco Borggreve | Nederlandse Reisopera

Hallucinatory stagings of Orphean operas have been done before: what makes this production extraordinary is its emotional punch and the breathtaking aesthetic with which it delivers it. Right from the start, when Eurydice drops dead at the wedding during a game of blind man’s buff, it grabs you by the throat and puts a lump in it that stays there until the end. Dieuweke van Reij’s undulating, stony set, lit by bold and beautiful lighting on a space-opening cyclorama, doubles as the physical world and Orpheus’ inner life. In a tasteful combination of contemporary polish and peasant Sunday best, the choristers of Consensus Vocalis transform themselves from wedding guests to mourners to the hounding furies and soothing spirits in Orpheus’ mind. Moving and acting as individuals, the chorus added rich layers to the drama and sang with a velvety blend of young and mature voices. Every moment of this Orphée feels like a part of an organic whole. Even the ballet music, often considered as an annoyance the French had to have with their opera, is integrated into the portrayal of Orpheus’ crisis. The most inspired is the eloquent choreography for the Dance of the Furies, during which Orpheus struggles with several of his other selves.

Kristina Bitenc (Eurydice) and Hanna Herfurtner (L'Amour) © Marco Borggreve | Nederlandse Reisopera
Kristina Bitenc (Eurydice) and Hanna Herfurtner (L'Amour)
© Marco Borggreve | Nederlandse Reisopera

Although the accomplished musicians of HET Symfonieorkest played well, the concentrated emotion and refined articulation on the stage were not echoed in the pit. Roger Hamilton’s rendering of the score was often angular and did not sufficiently accentuate its dramatic contrasts. Some of the tempos were baffling. The Dance of the Blessed Spirits, for instance, during which Orpheus, in a lucid, desperate state, mourns at Eurydice’s grave, was marred by being too hurried. The vocal music was served much better. The tireless Samuel Boden was totally convincing as the shell-shocked Orpheus. His voice is modest in size, but, crucial for this role, with a honey-toned, easy upper range. Although plaintive lyricism brought out the best in his voice, he could also handle the coloratura showpiece "L'espoir renaît dans mon âme", and this while carrying Cupid on his shoulders. Mr Boden maintained such a gut-wrenching intensity throughout the arduous performance that at times his physical involvement affected his tonal quality, but conveying emotion mainly through the voice challenges even the most seasoned singers.

The same can be said of Kristina Bitenc, who was an expressively luminous Eurydice. Her voice never lost focus, but it gleamed most brightly at the end, when her character was no longer in anguish. Hanna Herfurtner sang L’Amour with a very pleasing, evenly produced soprano and poised light-heartedness. After the performance, an English-speaking patron remarked that, although he understood neither the French libretto nor the Dutch surtitles, he could follow everything that was happening on stage. A great compliment, and just one of the many virtues of this unmissable production.

****1