Review: Gluck – Orfeo ed Euridice⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Edinburgh International Festival

Gluck – Orfeo ed Euridice

Usher Hall

19:30 15 August only

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ (5 stars)

Sublime! Incomparable! It’s a glorious piece of music even if badly sung but last night Welsh counter-tenor Iestyn Davies poured his heart and soul into the part of Orfeo and Sophie Bevan’s Euridice lived up to the picture Orfeo had painted of her in his grief at her death.

It’s a simple story: Orfeo’s love Euridice has died, and Orfeo is heartbroken. Amor, the god of love, offers him a way to get her back from Hades. If he is prepared to face the horrors of the underworld, he can bring her back to life – but he must not look at her nor explain anything to her: if he so much as looks at her on the way back to the surface, she will die again, and forever.

Orfeo overcomes his fears and goes to meet the furies of hell: his grief placates their wrath and they let him pass: he finds himself in the realm of the blessed spirits, and is reunited with his love. He is overjoyed, but Euridice can’t understand why he won’t touch her or look at her: why is he so sad? What has gone wrong? Does he no longer love her? Her anguish causes him torment as he restrains himself from responding to her pleading – but at last, as she fears she is dying once more, he can no longer resist his feelings. He turns to look at her – and she dies for a second time. In some versions of the story Orfeo is left to lament for ever: in this version Amor, convinced of the power of Orfeo’s love, rewards him by bringing her back to life and the lovers are united in praise for the power of the god of love.

With no elaborate sets or props to distract us we were focused solely on the music and the singing. Iestyn Davies is not simply a superb singer: he is also an accomplished actor, even in modern dress, and while doing very little, he conveys subtly but unmistakably the agonies he is suffering – then his voice bursts out and our hearts are torn with grief for him.

We had to wait for Sophie Bevan’s entrance until after the interval, but she too had our hearts bleeding as she poured out her joy at being alive again and seeing her beloved husband but her joy swiftly turned to anguish and confusion as her husband failed to give a single sign of his love for her. Indeed, he seemed to her to have stopped loving her as his curt commands to her to follow him, and quickly, grew more and more stern as his desperation to bring her back with him increased.

The music – ah, the music! Of course there is the famous che faro senza Euridice – the agonised outpouring of the lover who for the second time is bereft of his beloved, and can’t see how he can continue to live without her. But there was so much more: the superb orchestra and choir of the English Baroque, conducted by Bernard Labadie; the solos, [a lovely cameo for Rowan Pierce as Amor], the choruses, the exquisitely pain-filled duet as the lovers express their individual anguish; the way the orchestra builds and underlines the emotions – pounding heart, terror, agony, despair, pleading, desolation and finally unexpected joy.

Presented here in the simple, first version of Gluck’s masterpiece, it was pared down to the bare minimum, with the suite of dances before the final chorus allowing us to come back to earth after the extreme emotional rollercoaster we’d been on.

Thunderous applause greeted soloists, conductor, chorus and orchestra, with Iestyn looking very small and quiet and ordinary for such an extraordinary singer – almost as if he were wondering what all the fuss was about – or just maybe, like Orfeo, coming back to earth after such a harrowing experience.

Mary Woodward