Mother complex

Orphee Et Eurydice/ Welsh National Opera | Cardiff New Theatre
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The Independent Culture

After years in which stagings of Gluck's Orpheus went either for an authentic approach or adopted the Berlioz version in one form or another, it's comforting to have reached the stage of being able to mount Gluck-Berlioz as Welsh National Opera did in Cardiff on Monday: as an "authentic" enterprise under a conductor with impeccable scholarly credentials.

After years in which stagings of Gluck's Orpheus went either for an authentic approach or adopted the Berlioz version in one form or another, it's comforting to have reached the stage of being able to mount Gluck-Berlioz as Welsh National Opera did in Cardiff on Monday: as an "authentic" enterprise under a conductor with impeccable scholarly credentials.

Of course, the reasons for preferring it remain the same. Gluck never wrote any of the huge title part for a female voice, while the male voices he did write for now scarcely exist. With a mezzo such as Ferrier, Baker or, now, Katarina Karneus, you can have all or most of Gluck's music done with a brilliance and flair that banishes fears about the work's effectiveness on the modern stage. With anything less, it can seem thin, fragile - almost a kind of intermezzo, like the one that Tchaikovsky inserted in his Queen of Spades, which modern productions (though not WNO's) in fact often omit.

Apart from the title role, the piece is essentially a series of choreographed tableaux. WNO's co-producers, Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser, and their designers, Christian Fenouillat and Agostino Cavalca, reflect this ballet de cour element, with sliding flats and backcloths exquisitely painted in the pastoral manner but offset in a semi-surrealist way by a cast of mortals dressed as mourners at the funeral of some present-day grandee. It may sound clichéd but is in fact strikingly effective. In the Elysian Fields the whitened shades process up and down like haunted promenaders in a painting by Macke. Cupid, on the other hand, is a figure out of Watteau, recalling Orpheus to some age of gold.

The clash brings out well the sense of intrusion that is the whole point of the descent into Hades. I liked the Dante-esque spectres and furies, doomed to enact and re-enact an aimless choreography of movement and gesture; but not the cruel reading of Eurydice as a stiletto-heeled Fifties secretary bird; admittedly, she behaves like one, but one can't feel that such a creature would have inspired Orpheus's great aria, nor the events that prompt it.

Paul McCreesh conducts a nicely paced, well modulated performance of Gluck's lovely if somewhat unvaried score, as discreetly retouched by Berlioz (clarinets prominent). Jeni Bern is a bright, sparky Cupid, Natalie Christie a charmingly bemused Eurydice. But in the end it all depends on Karneus; and though she has occasional balance problems low down, she handles the wonderful floating lines without a blemish and the dazzling coloratura and slightly absurd roulades of "L'éspoir renaît" with majestic assurance.

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