Cardiff's search for a vocal hero

'The reason to use the Berlioz version of Gluck's Orphée is that you want to feature a fantastic mezzo,' Paul McCreesh tells Nick Kimberley. Which is why Katerina Karneus is pulling on the trousers
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The Independent Culture

When, in 1859, Hector Berlioz was given the opportunity to prepare a new edition of Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice for the Theatre-Lyrique in Paris, he hesitated. He had long held up the "beautiful simplicity" of Gluck's operas as a corrective to the excesses of Parisian operatic life, fulminating against those who dared to adulterate the great works of the past; could he do it himself?

When, in 1859, Hector Berlioz was given the opportunity to prepare a new edition of Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice for the Theatre-Lyrique in Paris, he hesitated. He had long held up the "beautiful simplicity" of Gluck's operas as a corrective to the excesses of Parisian operatic life, fulminating against those who dared to adulterate the great works of the past; could he do it himself?

He decided he could; not only would he reintroduce Parisian audiences to a magnificent opera, he would also provide a swan-song for the mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot, who would sing Orphée. Her voice might have been a shadow of its former self, but she was still an extraordinary singing actress.

These days we prefer the composer's original thoughts, but with Gluck there's a problem: when he wrote Orfeo ed Euridice in 1762, his Orfeo was a castrato. When he prepared his own Paris edition of Orphée et Eurydice in 1774, the role was rescored for that rare French voice type, the haute-contre, a tenor singing in a punishingly high tessitura. Neither castrati or hautes-contres are easy to find these days, so modern productions have to choose between a counter-tenor as a kind of castrato manqué, or a Berliozian mezzo.

For its new production, Welsh National Opera has chosen the latter. The performances will be conducted by Paul McCreesh, who says, quite simply, "The reason to do the Berlioz version is that you want to feature a fantastic mezzo-soprano."

Step forward the Swedish mezzo Katerina Karneus. Since winning the 1995 Cardiff Singer of the World competition, Karneus has developed a special relationship with WNO. As she recalls, "The company was originally planning to do Massenet's Werther, had trouble finding the right tenor for the lead role, and so asked me if I was interested in singing Orphée. Of course I said yes, partly because last year I was due to sing in the Berlioz edition at the Châtelet with John Eliot Gardiner, but had to cancel because I was highly pregnant."

A pregnant Orpheus? It would have been a novel take on the myth. At WNO, Karneus finds herself directed by the French team of Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser, an experience she has enjoyed: "I'm a singer who likes to be directed, and the style of Patrice and Moshe's direction is very intense. In their view, the body needs to feel the text, so that emotionally, I've been stripped naked, made to search inside for the true feeling of the piece. As an artist you should be in control of your emotions, but in one rehearsal I was broken down by the whole thing. There were tears streaming down my face, but I couldn't feel them. It was almost as if I'd detached myself from the emotion, yet I was acting it out. For me, that's been extraordinary."

The approach chimes with McCreesh's ideas. As he says, "I've always maintained that you must move the audience by the power of the text and the shape of the vocal line, so I try to persuade singers to speak the text first of all. If they can move the audience that way, the music will only enhance the expression. An extraneous vocal gesture will never add to the musical point you're making, any more than an extraneous dramatic gesture. If the drama doesn't come from a central simplicity, a poise, a focusing of the emotion, then it won't work. The way Patrice and Moshe are doing it is about clearing the stage of all the verismo, the frenetic irritation of singerese that creeps into so many productions."

Gluck's opera has never truly found its place in the repertoire. One of the reasons is its integration of ballets into the action. "Dance is not part of our standard operatic vocabulary," McCreesh suggests, "so we regard the ballets as an uncomfortable intrusion on the drama. But this piece is so delicate that you knock the stuffing out of it by removing the dances. They define the pacing of the opera. You have to believe in the form, and one of the things that we've tried to do here with the recits is to work on the proper power of rhetorical delivery. If you achieve that, then it becomes possible to treat the dance in such a way that the tension is between this restrained, stylised form of vocalisation, and the fantastical, colourful ballets."

Perhaps it's odd that, while dances in opera make us uneasy, we readily accept a woman singing a male role. For Katerina Karneus, taking the role of a man is nothing new; but how male is Orphée?

"Being a mezzo-soprano, I get offered a lot of trouser roles," she says, "but in this case, it's not about acting like a man, being a male impersonator. Yes, there are certain things that we've worked on in rehearsal; men always need more space for their arms, for example. But while there are ways to get a slightly more manly approach, I'm always going to be a woman playing a man. Yet whether Orphée is a man or a woman, the story will touch anybody: it's about losing somebody, about grieving, about defying the gods."

Paul McCreesh concurs: "We've been joking that we'll have to take Katerina for a few rugby-club stag nights so that she can learn how to be a man. But to be honest, I've done so much Baroque opera where people have been cross-dressing that when I look at her on stage I don't see her as a woman. That sounds bizarre because she's tall and attractive, very feminine, but if you enter the character, there's nothing that couldn't have been the other way round in terms of gender. Most characters in opera have a defined masculinity, or a defined femininity, but I don't feel that Orphée is any more masculine than he is feminine.

"And what a voice you need here: it has to cover two and a half octaves, and you couldn't get a counter-tenor to sing a top C. Or you could, but you wouldn't pay money to hear it. Katerina's voice is gloriously even from top to bottom. It's a classy instrument, and I don't care what sex she is."

Welsh National Opera's production of 'Orphée et Eurydice' opens at the New Theatre, Cardiff, Monday 2 Oct (029-2087 8889), and tours from 19 Oct

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