Orpheus & Euridice | Pinchgut OperaLeft - Andrew Goodwin with Fates. Cover - Elena Xanthoudakis. Photos - Simon Hodgson

Haydn’s opera on perhaps the most popular subject for Western opera composers, the myth of Orfeo and Euridice, had its Australian premiere last night at the hands of the wonderful Pinchgut Opera at their usual venue, Angel Place in Sydney. The opera, written on Haydn’s first visit to England in 1791, is almost perversely called l’Anima del Philosopho, or the soul of the philosopher, and though this title is intended to signal an engagement with Enlightenment values, the myth itself resists these at every turn, which makes for some interesting clashes of ethos. These give rise to one of the most extraordinary operas I have ever seen.

It begins with two acts whose dramatic content is about as considerable as that of the first act of la Sonnambula, and curiously begins with a sort of preview of Euridice’s death and subsequent resurrection at the hands of Orfeo and his music, which is of course the main dramatic event of the story. These two acts are set to music which, while always interesting (when is Haydn ever not interesting?) and often beautiful in an elegant 18th century way, doesn’t set you on the edge of your seat - although short passage for two clarinets is remarkable. Pinchgut’s insistence on period instruments, in the hands of such a seasoned band as the Orchestra of the Antipodes, lovingly conducted by their musical director Antony Walker, highlights every nuance of instrumentation, 

But what did astonish in this part of the opera was the singing of the two young principals, Andrew Goodwin (Orfeo) and Elena Xanthoudakis (Euridice) - effortless, clean, flexible, and perfectly matched so that in their duets their tuning was faultless. Elena’s acting was brilliant too, outrageously sexy and entirely irresistible. Even without much drama - and the director Mark Gaal had the chorus in the side boxes rather than on stage for these acts, leaving stage action to three malevolent non-singing actors - the first half of the evening was a feast for the ears.

But nothing before the interval prepared the audience for what came afterwards. As soon as the orchestra began the second half (acts 3 and 4) something unusual was in the air. The music became more and more dissonant, agitated, emotional, often straining at the boundaries of Haydn’s musical language, quoting now “Che faro” from Gluck’s Orfeo and now a few bars of “Dove sono” from Figaro. And the stage woke up. The chorus was onstage now, and after ten years of Pinchgutting they can really act. With Euridice now bitten by the snake and out of action, Elena Xanthoudakis was free to sing the part of the Sibyl, the character who performs much the role of Amor in Gluck’s version of the story. Originally written for castrato, in one particularly virtuosic aria the part goes up to high E! Elena demonstrated that she could do more than beautiful lyricism - in fact, although someone had told me, I didn’t realise it was the same singer.

And the end! We all dread the end of the Gluck when Amor comes on as a deus ex machina and there’s forced cheerfulness for 6 minutes. But here, for Haydn, the consequences of the lack of sexual restraint that causes Orfeo to look at Euridice are the complete collapse of Enlightenment values, and his librettist reverted to Ovid and had the bacchantes tear him to shreds (beautifully staged by using his clothes to tear up - no tomato ketchup blood here). The chorus were spectaculary impressive throughout the second half, as if acting had helped them to engage with the story in a way that sitting in the side boxes in the first half had not.

The opera ends in deep pessimism. In 1791 in England refugees from the French revolution were pouring across the Channel, and Robespierre’s Terror was about to begin. In Mozart’s exactly contemporary Magic Flute enlightenment values are seen as the renewal and revalidation of more autocratic social organization - here Haydn sees past them to an era when Reason is ignored and chaos rules.

This is the profound reading of this work generated by the research of Erin Helyard, the assistant conductor and fortepianist, and realised by Antony Walker’s musical direction. I have now seen all of Pinchgut’s productions except one, and this showed a very strong sense of cohesion and unanimity of principals, chorus, and orchestra, for which Antony is much to be admired. He conducts with such care and love of detail, and such passion for each event in the music, that I felt afterwards that I had really been somewhere special last night.

Pinchgut Opera presents
Orpheus & Euridice (L'anima del filosofo)
by Joseph Haydn | libretto by Carlo Francesco Badini

Director Mark Gaal

Venue: City Recital Hall Angel Place, Sydney
Dates/Times: 2, 4, 8 December 2010 @ 7.30pm; 5 December 2010 at 5pm
Bookings: 02 8256 2222  | www.pinchgutopera.com.au

Sung in Italian with English surtitles

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