Kupfer’s Orfeo

I’ve owned a VHS tape of Harry Kupfer’s 1991 Royal Opera House production of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice pretty much since it came out.  I really can’t bear to watch VHS anymore so I haven’t watched it in ages and was intrigued when I managed to get my paws on a DVD copy and was able to see what I thought after all this time.

As one might expect from Kupfer, it’s interesting and not at all straightforward.  It’s give a contemporary setting.  Orfeo wears jeans and a leather jacket and carries a guitar sometmes acoustic, sometimes electric.  A lot of the time he is also toting a TV set.  The chorus is ranked to the side of the orchestra and so there isn’t much going on on stage but Kupfer makes extensive use of projections and mirrors.  he also uses a very young boy as a body double for Amor.

Exactly what’s happening is not always easy to figure out. For example at the end of Act 1 Orfeo is taken away by men in white coats and appears at the start of the next act in a mental hospital where he is put in a strait jacket from which Amor releases him to allow him to pursue his quest.  His plea to the Furies is sung , recital style, in a tail coat, music in hand to his otherwordly audience.  This is mirrored in the finale when all three principals sit in chairs at centre stage and stand to sing to the audience and sit again when not required, oratorio style.  There are many other similar touches and it would be tedious to enumerate them all.  The overall message seems to be that Orfeo is a performer but who he is performing for is slippery and ambiguous.

Musically this is pretty interesting too.  The overall sound is very much determined by the casting choices.  Jochen Kowalski is Orfeo and he’s very much an “early music” countertenor which will turn some people off right away.  Actually he sings very well.  I especially liked the ornaments in the repeat of Che Faro but if you hate that sound, you hate that sound.  He also acts “big” which probably looked better in the house than in TV close up where it looks a bit overwrought.  The second unusual casting choice is treble Jeremy Budd as Amor.  At the time he was Head Chorister at St. Paul’s and he is very accomplished.  Most of the time he sings from the side of the stage while his, much younger, body double acts.  Gillian Webster is a more conventional, and entirely satisfactory, Euridice.  Hartmut Haenchen conducts and is generally quite brisk which seems to fit with the overall sound world of this production.

I liked Hans Hulscher’s video direction.  he’s a bit close up happy early on and it can be hard to see what Kupfer is doing but he relaxes as things go on and allows us a more holistic view.  His tracking out in the final oratorio like scene is masterly and goes a long way to helping grasp Kupfer’s Konzept.

Technically this a bare bones Kultur release  The 4:3 picture isn’t great but it’s adequate.  The Dolby 2.0 sound is a little thin but maybe it doesn’t matter so much in this sound world.  The English subtitles are hard coded and the documentation is minimal.

I don’t think this is the definitive Orfeo by any means but it’s  worth a look if it comes your way.

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4 thoughts on “Kupfer’s Orfeo

  1. Re VHS, I guess I was a latecomer to video at home. We deliberately didn’t have a TV while the children were growing up and then we were given one by a distributor and later bought a VCR. For awhile we just watched an occasional film on it and then one day at the end of a film there was a trailer for an opera. For some reason it had never occurred to me that there might be opera on videotape. So I began accumulating opera videos. Then one day my son said I should think about a DVD player as the picture and sound were so much better. I couldn’t imagine why I would want that as being able to watch an opera in my living room on a 20″ TV seemed like the height of luxury. But eventually I got one and then a front projector and then a surround sound system and then blu-ray. I now watch films and operas on a nine foot screen. As you said, hard to go back to what I once considered the height of luxury. 🙂

  2. I own this one too. It is interesting… I have very mixed feelings about it, which I’ll express when I eventually write my own review of it. By the way, I interpreted the oratorio-style finale as the director commenting on the “inappropriateness” of the happy ending. Since Orfeo’s silent body double falls down “dead” at the point where Orfeo attempts suicide, and doesn’t get up again, I felt like the message was, “The story really ends here. Orfeo dies. The ‘happy ending’ is tacked-on, so we’re not going to present it as part of the story, but just sing it as concert music.” Of course I could be wrong, but that was my interpretation.

    • That interpretation makes a lot of sense. I have mixed feelings about the production too but I’ve yet to find the perfect production on DVD. I wish that someone would record the Robert Carsen version.

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