Opera concert offers delightful music history lesson

January 15, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Modern music is not the only kind that can be startle the aural nerves. Centuries-old stuff can do the same thing. Such was the case Sunday afternoon with an ear-opening presentation of Gluck's Orphee et Euridice, one of the glories of the 18th century, by Opera Lafayette and the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.

The remarkable venture provided further evidence, not that any more is needed, of how valuable the "authenticity movement" is, how great its legacy of attempting to re-create performance practices of distant times.

This Orphee was one of the most carefully considered, elegantly realized music history lessons I've experienced yet. And the Smith Center, packed with an appreciative crowd, was an acoustically ideal place to experience it.

This was basically a concert version of the opera, with ballet episodes danced in costume and according to what is known of dancing styles when Orphee was first performed in Paris in 1774. But the singing turned out to be so vivid that it was possible to envision a fully staged production, to see the plot unfold with all the restrained emotions of true classicism.

Orphee started out as an Italian opera; when Gluck refashioned it to suit the French theater, he didn't just change the male lead from a castrato (the French didn't appreciate that freaky, creepy voice type) to a tenor.

Much of the score was revised, with additions and subtractions turning it into an essentially new work. Like the original Orfeo, Orphee remained a "reform opera," a counterweight to the florid, formulaic style then fashionable. Gluck demonstrated how beneficial it could be to shift the emphasis from vocal display back to text, the way opera first began.

In this straightforward work, Orpheus descends to Hades to reclaim his dead wife, loses her when he dares to look at her, regains her yet again when the gods feel pity on him. That's all there is to the plot. But Gluck makes every word, every feeling, every thought register with music of enormous color, imagination and often sublime beauty. In all of opera, there are few scenes to rival the dramatic and poetic power of Orphee taming the furies of Hades, or lamenting the death of Euridice.

Conductor Ryan Brown brought out these qualities on Sunday, paying great attention to the subtlest points of orchestration and dynamics. His tempos could have been a little more relaxed here and there (the D minor section of the famous Dance of the Blessed Spirits, for example, was so rushed that its melodic and harmonic poignancy barely registered), but the overall thrust of the performance proved irresistible.

So did the beguiling singing of tenor Jean-Paul Fouchecourt as Orphee. Even allowing for a couple of iffy top notes, this was an extraordinary demonstration of style and expressive content. It was easy to understand how this Orphee could tame the gate-keepers of hell.

Catherine Dubosc, as Euridice, was a bit lacking in tonal warmth, but the soprano effectively caught the character's sweetness, and, during the third act, despair. Suzie LeBlanc did some tender, finely nuanced singing as L'Amour. The chorus offered model finesse and sensitivity. The D.C.-based Violins of Lafayette Orchestra produced a sound that was not just historically anchored, but technically quite refined.

The New York Baroque Dance Company, artfully choreographed by Catherine Turocy and Carlos Fittante, helped bring considerable atmosphere to this memorable blast from the past.

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