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'Orfeo ed Euridice' at the COC: A vivid journey into the underworld

Lawrence Zazzo as Orfeo and Isabel Bayrakdarian as Euridice in the Canadian Opera Company production of "Orfeo ed Euridice"

Michael Cooper

Orfeo ed Euridice

  • The Canadian Opera Company
  • At the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto on Sunday

Any musician who worked at the Canadian Opera Company during its first 60 years could have told you that C.W. Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice changed the course of opera history. Yet the piece never got onto the company's agenda till Sunday, a fact that seemed doubly incredible after the first performance of the COC's strongest production of the season.

Gluck was all about returning the inflated art form of the 18th century to something as lean and dramatically unified as the first Italian operas. Robert Carsen's production, first seen at Chicago Lyric Opera in 2006, intensifies that back-to-basics attitude, with a stern and vivid setting of this tale about love beyond reason.

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Forget the pleasant grove that's supposed to receive Euridice's corpse in the first scene: This show opened on a desolate beach, with a parade of mourners that resembled a Sicilian funeral procession, moving in silhouette across a pale and flattened horizon. But saying what it looked like can't convey the combined force of the scene, the solemn opening chorus, and the contrast between the contained enactment of ritual and Orfeo's violent display of grief.

The whole show was like that, each element reinforcing the others, prodding you to hear something in a new way or to understand what words and music were getting at all along. This is why we go to music theatre; this is why it exists.

It's almost a one-man show, and countertenor Lawrence Zazzo made the hero's journey to the underworld feel like a real-time adventure in the psychology of desperate measures. Orfeo's most famous aria, delivered after he loses Euridice a second time, is often criticized for being too light and pretty for the situation, but for once it felt mysteriously deep, as if beyond mere sorrow - an impression prepared by all that came before, and by Zazzo's shapely, intelligent singing.

The COC Chorus, as the opera's second-most important character, resisted or supported the hero with acutely focused song. Their silent movements often visualized a feeling implicit in text or music, and defined the space to such an extent that it seems almost arbitrary to say where Tobias Hoheisel's stage design (lit by Carsen and Peter Van Praet) left off and Carsen's direction began.

Isabel Bayrakdarian (Euridice) had only a short time to lead her character from surprised relief to indignant anger, and did it very credibly, though her billowing soprano often drifted above the pitch. Soprano Ambur Braid gave a clear and confident performance of Amore's two scenes, the latter marked by a witty costume change cued by a remark in Ranieri de' Calzabigi's libretto.

Gluck's ballets have mostly been swallowed up in this show by choral movement. That looked like a minor mistake in the second act, when Orfeo's distracted running around seemed a poor substitute for a dance of the Furies. His short season in hell was vivid nonetheless, though as the pacified chorus crawled over the floor in its shrouds, the scene began to resemble a torch-lit slumber party.

Conductor Harry Bicket transformed the COC Orchestra, slimming down the violin tone, coaxing a newly woody timbre from the lower strings, and putting plenty of air into Gluck's phrases. The whole score (the original 1762 version) sounded fresh and agile.

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Bicket omitted the final short ballet suite, no doubt at Carsen's request. That cut shortened an already brief denouement, and ended this 90-minute show with a bit of a bump. But the little that is missing hardly counts against the imaginative riches of this fascinating, unmissable show.

The COC's production of Orfeo ed Euridice continues through May 28.

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About the Author

Robert Everett-Green is a feature writer at The Globe and Mail. He was born in Edmonton and grew up there and on a farm in eastern Alberta. He was a professional musician for several years before leaving that task to better hands. More

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