“Orpheus” Choreography for Nine Dancers and Seven Musicians, Blu-ray (2014); BRETON: Orfeo ed Eurydice – one-act opera – Ens. Lorenza da Ponte – Fra Bernardo

“Orpheus” Choreography for Nine Dancers and Seven Musicians,
Blu-ray (2014)

Choreography: Dominique Herviu and José Montalvo
Production: Marie-Pierre Bousquet
Realization: Denis Caiozzi
Scenery and Video Design: José Montalvo
Studio: Art Haus Musik 108124 [1/27/15] (Distr. by Naxos)
Video: for 16:9 1080i HD color
Audio: 24-bit PCM stereo
Menus in English
No Region Code
Length: 78 minutes
Rating: ***

FERDINANDO BERTONI: Orfeo ed Euridice – Vivica Genaux, mezzo-soprano/Francesca Lombardi-Mazzuli, sop./Jan Petryk, tenor/Coro Accademia di Santo Spirito/Ensemble Lorenza da Ponte/Roberto Zarpellon – Fra Bernardo CD FB 1601729 [Distr. by Naxos], 70:44, (3/25/2016) ***:

A chance to compare two very different iterations of the Orpheus legend.

There have been a few well-known musical adaptations of the Greek legend of Orpheus, most notably the Gluck opera and a lesser known and much lesser played attempt by Berlioz. There have also been some interesting and unusual modern iterations including Philip Glass’ Orfee intended to be performed as a soundtrack to the film by Cocteau and the ballet done by Stravinsky with the great choreographer George Balanchine. The story which – going all the way back to Greek mythology – gives us a fable of the great warrior, musician and farmer Orpheus who falls for the beautiful Euridice at the displeasure of the gods is fairly well known. Orpheus’ ill-fated pursuit of his lover into the Underworld to which she has been banished is just that; ill fated.

One reason why there have not been more adaptations is that, like all Greek mythology, the plots are heavy on symbolism and even guilt but not very action based; as was the need at the time for stories that also taught Ethos, Pathos and Logos. To these two adaptions crafted in very different ways and nearly four hundred years apart:

José Montalvo’s balletic rendition makes for plenty of ‘eye candy’ with intriguing video backdrops including many that enlarge and amplify the dancers’ movements in real time. There are some weirdly astonishing footages of wild animals simulating their mysterious enamoring of Orpheus’ music. The music chosen, itself, is quite the mélange; everything from Gluck to some indigenous African melodies to Philip Glass to several I have never heard of. The musical tone remains largely early Baroque, however, interrupted many times albeit briefly by interruptions of material (see list of composers….) that represent sudden, nearly bizarre shifts. (One of the strongest moments however is a selection from Glass during what seems a farewell embrace between the two protagonists.)

The dancers are quite talented, performing the most athletic and twisted movements I have seen in awhile. Two particularly creative touches are the use of Tenor Sebastien Obrecht as the singer Orpheus accompanying himself on cello instead of the harp of the fable. Also, I could not ascertain by reading the booklet notes who is the young male dancer with one leg; or what is his role (exactly) but – yes – he dances with and without the assistance of crutches and stilts on but one leg. He is absolutely amazing as are all the dancers. If I have but one caveat to offer it is an important one; the story is barely discernable and what little singing or narration there is is in French. I think this appeals to fans of modern choreography primarily and it is a pretty impressive example of same.

For contrast, composer Ferdinando Bertoni (1725 to 1813) wrote over seventy operas which now almost all forgotten, except for his Orfeo. The opera is based on the same libretto as Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, and was also composed for the same castrato, Gaetano Guadagni. Unlike Gluck however Bertoni created a true opera seria, which celebrates its rediscovery here in this recording with Vivica Genaux; her mezzo taking the place of what would otherwise have been a castrato. (It would be some years later before female singers were allowed to be the leads in productions portraying women.) One drawback or criticism of what Italian opera would coin “opera seria” was a perceived over reliance on flashy singing at the expense of plot development.

Bertoni was largely self-taught as a composer and made his living mainly as a church chorus master and organist. His music for Orfeo ed Euridice is “typical” late Baroque and has hints of Gluck and Handel and even the ‘classical’ masters such as Mozart. It is pleasant and unassuming. The orchestrations are predictably supportive and serve to establish the harmonic flow. It is clear that the real show here is Vivica Genaux as Orpheus taking the role originally intended for Bertoni’s friend and colleague, the alto castrato Gaetano Guadagni. Truth be told, Bertoni’s Orfeo is more compact – and less interesting – than Gluck’s famed offering (I have actually seen the Gluck as well as that composer’s Alceste and, in the hands of the right director, it is quite interesting.)

Of the two very different takes on the Greek legend, I enjoyed the modern dance version by Montalvo more. Ironically, both Montalvo’s dream-like visual showpiece as well as the fairly brief opera seria by Bertoni suffer from plot coherence (ie: “What’s happening now..?”) Bertoni’s music is nice but not compelling, whereas Montalvo’s ballet will absolutely hold your attention even if you cannot tell “what’s happening now.”

—Daniel Coombs

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