Of all operas, Orfeo ed Euridice is perhaps the one for which a minimalist modern reading makes the most sense. Robert Carsen's direction takes Gluck's reform towards simplification of opera to the next level by focusing on the essence of the work. If Gluck had wanted to dispense with convoluted plots and auto-referential vocal virtuosity to focus on the drama on stage, Carsen decides to keep only what he deems to be the fundamental elements of the libretto. Moreover, with its centring on the universal and all-embracing themes of Love and Death, Orfeo ed Euridice is a pure distillation of opera (and life).

Orfeo ed Euridice
© Fabrizio Sansoni

Tobias Hoheisel creates a very simple but extremely effective set with a bare lunar-like landscape, coherently complemented by flat background lighting (by Carsen himself and Peter van Praet) which changes colour in each act; a spotlight is always on the main characters, while the chorus is often shown as a silhouette. As shepherds and nymphs don’t seem to be in fashion anymore, the initial chorus was made up of common people in the act of attending a funeral, all dressed up in timeless modern black suits or dresses (still Hoheisel) including Orfeo, Euridice and Amore.

While using mezzo-sopranos or contraltos for the role of Orfeo is a long and well established practice, the countertenor timbre better conveys the symbolic and universal quality of this character. Carlo Vistoli was magnificent, and his is the most beautiful countertenor voice I have heard on stage, with a timbre sitting right in between feminine and masculine. His interpretation of the role was also impressive, having me in tears already at the line “La rivoglio da voi, numi tiranni!”, from his very first aria “Chiamo il mio ben così”. So good was his performance throughout the evening that the most famous aria of the opera, “Che farò senz’ Euridice”, even if beautifully sang, was not necessarily the highlight of the evening. Mariangela Sicilia was an excellent Euridice, her lovely soprano voice, good throughout its range, having a particularly rich sound in the lower notes. Her only aria “Che fiero momento” was sang with the necessary impetus and despair, and her whole duetting with Orfeo lead to their final scene being very convincing and moving. Emőke Baráth played the role of Amore very well, with good delivery of the playful and sensuous aria “Gli sguardi trattieni”.

Carlo Vistoli (Orfeo) and Emőke Baráth (Amore)
© Fabrizio Sansoni

There are so many stratifications and versions of this opera that it seems ineffectual to try and be philological about it, but I couldn’t help noticing the almost complete lack of dance from this staging. This is particularly evident at the start of the second act where, instead of seeing Furies and spectres dancing, we see them lying on the ground with minimal movement, creating great contrast with the music. Orfeo ed Euridice was a new, groundbreaking kind of opera which championed simplicity, but it was still a distinct child of its time. As well as being a strong admirer of Handel, Gluck was influenced in his work by the French tragédies lyriques, mainly those of Rameau. The 1762 version (utilised here) did already contain dances (by choreographer Gasparo Angiolini), albeit in a reduced measure compared to the 1774 Paris adaptation. While these dances were not seen in this adaptation, thanks to the strength of the singers and of the direction, surprisingly, the staging overall still managed not to feel too static.

Carlo Vistoli (Orfeo) and Mariangela Sicilia (Euridice)
© Fabrizio Sansoni

The sound of the modern Orchestra del Teatro dell’Opera di Roma could not possibly match the period effect and texture of a Baroque ensemble (although an harpsichord was employed); but this would have not been an option here as the orchestra is the resident one. For its overall engaged playing under conductor Gianluca Capuano, I found some tempi either too sluggish (“Altro non abita/che lutto e gemiti/in queste orribili/soglie funeste”) or too fast (the first lines of “Che farò senz’ Euridice”). The brief but intense musical climax at the end of Act 1 (right after “Assistemi, o dei, la legge accetto”) underwhelmed: no thunder effect to be heard from percussion, and the string thunderstorm did not manage to blow me away.

That said, this production is both stunning and memorable. For an audience without philological preoccupations, the performances should prove very satisfying.