As far as season openers go, a revival of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice is an interesting choice. The first of Gluck’s “reform” operas, Orfeo eschews vocal pyrotechnics and long da capo arias in favour of simpler music that helps forward the drama. Still, Orfeo is a relatively modest undertaking, with only three main characters and a running time shorter than the first acts of several Wagner operas. It does, however, provide ample opportunity for dance, and in his production, director and choreographer Jo Strømgren attempts to bring the two art forms together.

Vigdis Unsgård (Euridice) and David Hansen (Orfeo) © Erik Berg
Vigdis Unsgård (Euridice) and David Hansen (Orfeo)
© Erik Berg

As a choreographer, Strømgren is known for his irreverent ballets, often with a satirical or at least comical edge. As an opera director, his deftly humorous approach is still very much evident, and dance is very much the unifying theme of the production. For an opera like Orfeo ed Euridice, that approach makes sense: musically, since so much of the opera consists of dances, but also dramatically. Strømgren imagines the corps de ballet as a second chorus – where the singing chorus is human, mortal, the dancing chorus is godly, immortal.

Strømgren’s Orfeo is a wry musing on death and travel. It opens in a hospital, the already dead Euridice being prepared for her autopsy and with the head pathologist eating his lunch right next to her. While we might object to such unhygienic behaviour today, Strømgren gets away with it by setting his production in the 1950s, a simpler time with (presumably) fewer concerns about food and dead bodies. The opera chorus form the mourners, flocking around Euridice’s corpse, while the hospital staff is made up of dancers, ever trying to guide Orfeo.

David Hansen and dancers © Erik Berg
David Hansen and dancers
© Erik Berg

When Orfeo begins his descent into the underworld, accompanied by Amore, they first arrive in the departure lounge of Erebus Airlines, a depressing waiting room filled with still-standing people, waiting to be taken to some – any – afterlife. The rest of the production sees Strømgren similarly occupied with waiting, be it for a journey or for life itself. I did at times wish for the production to be slightly less concerned with keeping the chuckles coming, yet luckily, the insistence upon humour never became grating.

Gluck wrote the role of Orfeo for the castrato Gaetano Guadagni, a singer widely acclaimed in the mid-18th century for a purity and simplicity of voice, and a powerful lower register. While David Hansen does have a beautiful voice, his bottom register was lacking in power and often swallowed by the orchestra. Hansen fared considerably better in the higher-lying passages, even interpolating a couple ringing high notes. The opera is essentially a showcase for the countertenor, and while Hansen’s characterisation and acting managed to carry the show, the vocal performance never really took off.

David Hansen (Orfeo) and Vigdis Unsgård (Euridice) © Erik Berg
David Hansen (Orfeo) and Vigdis Unsgård (Euridice)
© Erik Berg

Vera Talkerko impressed with her gleaming, bright soprano as a perky flight-attendant Amore, especially in her first act aria. I would have liked some more attention to the text, especially in the lengthy recitative just before her Act I aria. As Euridice, Vigdis Unsgård went from confusion to desperation, from mournful rage to endless joy, all the while showing impressive breath control and an intensely dramatic characterisation.

The chorus seemed an amorphous mass throughout, not doing much in terms of style, and with mushy diction. Balance-wise, things weren’t great either, with out of tune tenors dominating. Often, they seemed at a loss for what to do on-stage, often resorting to cartoonish posturing or just standing and singing. Rinaldo Alessandrini struggled likewise with the orchestra. In the first two acts, there were major intonation issues in high strings and woodwinds. In an opera dominated by violins and oboes sharing melodic lines, that quickly gets problematic. Luckily, the orchestra seemed to be mentally back from their summer holidays after intermission and the third act passed relatively smoothly. Alessandrini chose judicious tempi, although many of the slower arias were taken a touch quickly.

Strømgren manages in his Orfeo ed Euridice to bring together both the National Opera and National Ballet. However, clocking in at under two hours, including intermission, I wondered if a slightly meatier season opener could have been chosen.

**111