An Orpheus from Hell

Over the years we have heard many different versions of Gluck’s Orphée. One can choose the Vienna version for castrato, which is shorter and simpler (or better: equally difficult, but in a less spectacular way), the Paris rewrite for tenor or the Berlioz reworking for the distinguished mezzo Pauline Viardot (Anne Sophie von Otter sang this version in Stockholm a few weeks ago). In short, a singer can “play” with the role in order to show his/her ability in portraying Apollo’s son: however, any adaptation should respect the spirit of Gluck’s masterpiece.

Eh, che faro?Unfortunately, this is not the case with the Orphée which opened on January 8 in Bologna, starring Roberto Alagna in the main role. Together with his lesser-known brothers David (director & composer) and Frédérico (scenic designer), the French-Italian tenor presented a rather unusual patchwork, with heavy cuts (almost all the dances and the great aria “L’espoir renaît dans mon âme” are omitted, while “Objet de mon amour” has been reduced to a single stanza) and the tenor part rewritten in a lower key, in order to fit in with Alagna’s chronic problems with the high register.

Moreover, the role of Amour (originally sung by a soprano) has been reassigned to a baritone: in fact, instead of the God of Love, we have a gravedigger who leads a modern-day Orphée into a death cell in order to save his wife from a group of mummies. In the third act, Eurydice attempts to seduce the gravedigger, threatening to elope with him. Orphée decides he has to look at her in order not to lose her again(!) She dies, of course, and Orphée chooses to be buried with her. (Apparently, Alagna didn’t like the original happy ending).

Now, all this may sound like a bad dream, or at least a cheap mise en scène of an Offenbach operetta, but that is just what Alagna’s Orphée is about. One can understand that such a humble singer as Alagna might have wanted an Orphée to call his own, yet he’d better have written it together with his oh-so-smart little brothers, instead of stealing Gluck’s name for this trivial farce. Yet, we cannot forget that such a shame also involves both the opera house’s superintendent Marco Tutino and the musical director of the show, Giampaolo Bisanti, whose bland interpretation and eccentric tempos (too fast in the pit, too slow on stage, the pairing of these two musical realms being a mere accident) made a bad thing worse.

Alagna shouted like he was singing Cavalleria Rusticana on a bad evening in a big house (Bologna’s theater is rather small), but the voice is too thin and not well projected, while what remains of the high register is often off key. His Eurydice, Serena Gamberoni, is a tiny sopranino, with a non-existent low register and shrilling high notes, in the manner of old-fashioned soubrettes. French baritone Marc Barrard was the grotesque, wobbly Amour. Audience reaction was mixed: a few loud booe and a big round of applause. Gluck turned into a poor imitation of Mascagni? Who cares, as long as we have The Brothers Alagna! — Antonio Tamburini

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