Haydn the Philosopher…at the Pinchgut Opera, Sydney

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Orfeo (Goodwin) and maenad chorus. Photo: Simon Hodgson.

Orfeo (Goodwin) and maenad chorus. Photo: Simon Hodgson.

L’anima del filosofo, ossia Orfeo ed Euridice
Music – Joseph Haydn (composed spring 1791 in London)
Libretto – Carlo Francesco Badini
Pinchgut Opera
City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney: 2 December 2010.
Continues until 7 December 2010.

Euridice and Genio – Elena Xanthoudakis
Orfeo – Andrew Goodwin
Creonte – Derek Welton
Pluto – Craig Everingham
Chorus – Cantillation

Orchestra of the Antipodes
Conductor – Antony Walker
Assistant Conductor – Erin Helyard

Director – Mark Gaal
Designers – Brad Clark & Alexandra Sommer
Lighting designer – Bernie Tan-Hayes

(N.B.: Libretto translations quoted below by Natalie Shea).

The Orpheus and Eurydice tale never really spoke to me, as it is now accepted in Ovid’s version. I was fed it over and over again through school, but always felt manipulated by Eurydice’s double death, which the storyteller designed to be super affective by describing their ardent love with so much intensity. It is really a quadruple death since the two lovers become so absorbed into one another, one’s death is the other’s; all pathos is destroyed in the end and the story goes beyond mere tragedy. The pivotal twist caused by Hades’ rule forbidding Orpheus to look back at Eurydice as they leave the underworld is arbitrary and puritanical; placing such negative importance and obsessively focussing on a simple and natural physical movement is a hallmark of Puritanism and conservative Catholicism. Also, the Eurydice in Ovid’s myth is a very weak character, only existing to be a victim. In fact, according to Robert Graves (The Greek Myths, 1960), Eurydice’s death and the the lovers’ rendez-vous in the underworld is a late addition to the myth of Orpheus, priest of Dionysus, resulting from misinterpretations of paintings depicting Dionysus’ harrowing of the underworld to rescue his mother Semele, a journey on which Orpheus accompanied him to charm Hecate and the spirits of the dead. Eurydice herself is a literary descendant of the more ancient queens, whose sacrifices were sometimes poisoned with snake venom. The barbaric Dorians who invaded Greece from the north several centuries after the fall of Knossus may have made many brutal additions to myths, like the double death. They imposed their patrilineal customs and changed the native myths to suit by depreciating women. The more ancient version does end with Orpheus’ death by Maenads tearing him limb from limb, but this somehow makes more sense, like Le sacre du printemps, on a mystical level, something which attracted Yeats, whose plays A Full Moon in March and The King of the Great Clock Tower were based on Orpheus’ Irish counterpart King Bran.

So I have no problem if an Orpheus and Eurydice opera changes the plot, for example Gluck’s version, to make sense of the myth. Gluck’s ending strikes me as more of a transcendental happy ending when all are transported to a Temple of Love, a bit like the happy catastrophe which J. R. R. Tolkien wrote about and coined the word eucatastrophe for, as a sine quo non for fairy-stories. Fairy-stories aren’t myths, of course, but can be similar to opera in that they create a separate subworld with its own internal logic which reaches for the transcendent or a noumenon. Orpheus is also in a way elfin in that he is a perfect craftsman and artist.

After much enjoying Pinchgut’s performance of Haydn’s version of the myth, I’m inclined to believe that Haydn in turn to make sense of the story, rather than changing the plot, rather turns the whole myth inside out, making it into a odd, psychological piece. It ends in a kind of ambiguous madness only music can describe. Not to say the whole opera is “just a dream” or takes place inside one person’s head or some other such cop out, but rather it is a “real” event described in a Wagneresque trance-tone. And Haydn choose to name the opera not Orfeo ed Euridice but L’anima del Filosofo first and foremost. He was interested in Orpheus as a poet, musician and philosopher too, perhaps even a scientist as well, who were called natural philosophers in the 18th century. Anima is also Latin for “soul”, but also “breath” or “wind”, and is the word Carl Jung choose to name that separate psyche with elements of personality which he found evidence of in the human unconscious. He hypothesized that since a person’s conscious psyche consists of thoughts, memories, feelings, sensations, ideas, etc. and that these elements can be forgotten or repressed, i.e. made unconscious, they are also elements that can be found in the unconscious; they are never deleted entirely. In so far as these unconscious elements are associated with one another or “constellated”, they can behave like a separate psyche, which he called the anima (as distinct from the unmeasurable soul proper), with elements of personality. Since this anima consists of elements rejected by the conscious, it is in some sense opposite to the conscious personality, often even having qualities perceived as those of the opposite gender (anima is feminine, Jung called the masculine version an animus). This concept may have helped Jung the scientist understand his patients’ (and his own) dreams, but I think the anima or animus features in Haydn’s opera too — this production does in certain scenes segregate the sexes of the chorus—, or perhaps it is the rôle of the orchestra, but in no way replacing the concept of the soul proper, as the characters sing about it.

Mark Gaal’s direction compliments the opera in this way with a light touch, so far from literal-minded Ovid. The music becomes quite weird and modern, erratically jumping between moods, styles, harmonies and colours. Gaal allows the characters free movement and adds three mute characters who add an abstract element to the opera, freeing it enough that it can express its ambiguities and go far beyond the clunky version of the myth, as I was told it in school. This mystical quality Haydn took on for this work allows him the freedom of expression to try to symbolically unite Reason and feeling (or alternately art, science and philosophy) a problem on the minds of many contemporary artists. William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell first published the year before the opera was composed, puts it this way:

Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.
From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy.
Good is Heaven Evil is Hell.
…Man has no Body distinct from his Soul for that called Body is a portion of the Soul discerned by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age.
Energy is the only life and is from the Body and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.
Energy is Eternal Delight.

William Blake's frontpiece for his poem of 1790. Photo: Houghton Library, Harvard University.

William Blake's frontispiece for his poem of 1790. Photo: Houghton Library, Harvard University.

He goes on to marry these “Contraries”, but wrote of the gulf all his life. Reason can be consoling and comforting and very powerful, but soon trips over paradoxes as it tries to circumscribe the universe. Though Haydn’s opera doesn’t necessarily succeed as a uniting symbol transcending a false dichotomy, as it descends into chaos in the end, it is very rich, and the jarring and disturbing quality of the last two acts of the opera would seem to presage the convulsed times then beginning in Europe, which Blake again addressed three years later in his Europe a Prophecy.

This production is a partial modernisation but quite elaborately done. The men wear suits and ties or bow-ties or waistcoats but Euridice wears a very much classical dress of loose, light, flowing layers of white toile, gathered over the shoulders, belted round her middle. Orfeo is set apart by his waistcoat and ruffled shirt. The stage takes over the orchestra platform while the orchestra itself sits where the front few rows of the stalls usually are. The set has a black-veined white marble slab with a simple altar in the front centre of the stage made from the same material, to which the most important events of the opera are focussed. Five “trees” shoot up through the floor: the trunks are bundles of white PVC pipes which rise straight up about 3 metres and then separate, bending in successive right angles, twisting and tangling and joining with the other trees’ branches, forming a chaotic canopy over the stage like spiders’ legs. These trees would be good contemporary art sculptures in themselves, and they show how simple Pythagorean rules can compound into a complicated chaotic geometry. The side branches droop into the loges overlooking the stage, where the chorus sits for Act I — the women on the stage left side and the men right. They are dressed in simple black dresses, black suits and bow-ties, not unlike opera-goers, and I mistook them for audience for a moment. This, in combination with the orchestra in the stalls and the lack of curtain (though the set disappears when the lights go off) make the theatrical distance between audience and action and music very small indeed. The lack of distance works well in this case with the oddness of the opera and its introspective, psychological nature. With too much distance the opera would seem too surreal, but as it was it was very absorbing and sometimes disturbing, but also welcoming and generous in a way.

Blake's frontispiece for his poem of 1794. Photo: Fitzwilliam Museum.

The first scene has Euridice alone in a part of the forest with bad qi, despairing her arranged marriage with the wrong man, Aristaeus, and threatened by the beasts of the forest, who are less animal or satyr than unnatural and bestial humans, played by actors Sean Hall, Nicholas Gell and Jake Speer mostly through mime. They wear suit jackets and pants without shirts, like a sinister youth gang in a 1980’s London suburb. They are onstage throughout the whole opera, sometimes twisting their bodies into threatening attitudes, sometimes blending in with the scenery, sometimes assisting the action. The light on the stage is an eerie cold blue and after Euridice’s beautiful, touching aria, she has an exchange with the chorus. Not exactly a classical Greek chorus, distantly observing the action of the drama beneath them, but rather they try to influence the characters and events, gradually moving from their seats in the loges in Act I down to the stage and then mingling with the characters in Acts III and IV. Some of the chorus’ consoling lines sound trite on paper, but the they sing with the feeling of true care for the characters, adding a level of ambiguity to their motive, and perhaps supplementing the orchestra in shadowing or reflecting the liminal and unconscious feelings of the characters. In the first scene, only the men in the chorus sing and individuals stand up now and then to sing a solo, one singing impotently, “what can we do to help her?”

The beasts, having pursued Euridice up onto the altar, wind a rope round and round her body and arms. Euridice manages to free her arms on her own: she is more frightened of her own desperate feelings than the actual beasts. But soon after Orfeo comes to the rescue, to fight with reason and song rather than a sword. His song is dismissive of the beasts, painting them as “stolti” and “enemies of themselves”, rather than some kind of inexorable evil force. Orfeo’s recitative and some of his songs are accompanied by his “lyre” in the orchestra: harp and sometimes cello, in addition to the piano, (while usually only solo piano chords accompany other characters’ recitative), a very beautiful and unusual combination. I’m surprised some of his arias aren’t performed as chamber quartets. Orfeo doesn’t end up destroying the beasts, but rather deflates and defangs them and they blend back into the forest background, also removing their black jackets and putting on gold ones. The lights fade into a warm golden yellow, like the dawn. Thus the human hope he brings carries also ecological hope as he improves the qi of the forest. (Incidentally, , the “vital breath” of the philosophy of Dao, also can translate as “air”, like the Latin word anima does).

Derek Welton as Creonte. Photo: Simon Hodgson.

Derek Welton as Creonte. Photo: Simon Hodgson.

When Orfeo and Euridice return to her father Creonte he is reading a book. They are ready for a big argument, but Creonte, who just sang to us his little ode to logic,

Il pensier sta negli oggetti;
Da lor nasce ogni desio.
Son tiranni i nostri affetti,
E vantamo libertà

now approves their marriage. And it would now seem to him logical for his daughter to marry the heroic Orfeo, but he seems to count on the disappointed Aristaeus to withdraw honourably.

The music provides vivid characterization which the libretto alone doesn’t necessarily imply for Orfeo and more so for Euridice, who doesn’t get to do as much in the plot as Orfeo. Likewise their relationship develops through their duets: deepening as it rises towards heaven, in opposition to the physical action of the opera. In their first duet they sing of their hearts, physical metaphors: “Il core del mio cor”. Later they sing of their souls (or spirits) being one and out of reach of death: “Ma saran l’alme unite oltre l’oblio.” Orfeo goes so far as to sing “Without you my soul would be in misery even in heaven.” They continue with “the sun alone is worthy of our affection” and that it is doubly reflected in her eyes, like the moon. As they reach for outer space, they also reach into metaphysical paradoxes such as “L’alma in cielo mi pone, in ciel nell’alma.” The music changes to reflect this development, their melodies interweave more elaborately and with counterpoint from the orchestra.

But soon after the end of their last duet, Aristaeus ambushes Euridice while she’s alone. The threat of the brutish bee-keeper is represented by the trio of beasts now wearing in black leather, but they represent the snake too, carrying a black rope, which bites her heel. There is an extended death aria, very poignant and full of pathos. Orfeo in turn sings of his despair of “il barbaro destino” and “barbara sorte”. destiny and fate as two barbarous savages he cannot tame. He sings that the world is dead to him “Tutto estinto è per me…L’anima mia mori.”

But Creonte sings of vengeance to end Act II. Act III begins not with Creonte making good on his threat, but with a sombre funeral. The chorus is gathered around the altar with the other characters and a cold blue light fills the stage, giving an image of a giant haematoma. The canopy of the trees has shifted so that they droop down in the middle, an elbow of pipe pointing down in the centre. Orfeo, unresigned, then calls on sympathetic nature to amplify his song to heaven and change this wrong fate. Creonte seems to come around, tempering his severe rationality with the acknowledgement that it can’t exist on its own, but also somehow it would be unreasonable to allow this destiny.

Orfeo (Andrew Goodwin) with the Fates (left to right: Nicholas Gell, Sean Hall and Jake Speer). Photo: Simon Hodgson.

Orfeo (Andrew Goodwin) with the Fates (left to right: Nicholas Gell, Sean Hall and Jake Speer). Photo: Simon Hodgson.

Even after he brings down the Genio, a sibyl, Orfeo won’t let himself hope, or won’t trust this mystical creature. What does convince him him and bring him hope is Genio’s “Efficace conforto al cor dolente,/ Della filosofia cerca il Nepente.” Genio has a striking appearance in a beehive wig flecked with orange-red and dark turquoise material, a flowing gray and black light peplos and long black arm-gloves, the fingers pointed with long nails, like blue anodized knitting needles. Genio is a weird character. She sings as she dances with the trio of beasts — now representing some  kind of totemic beast maybe, who end up lifting her onto the altar. Some of her morsels sound pat or obvious on paper, e.g. “groans and tears will not avail you” but Elena Xanthoudakis delivers them the tempered confidence of a mystic, like the oracles of ancient drama, whose prophesies sound mundane or ridiculous but later come true in a twisted, unforeseen way. She finally provokes Orfeo with her recommendation that he find himself “constanza e valor” and he is then all too eager to “harrow hell” to rescue his lover.

Genio (Elena Xanthoudakis) with the Fates or beasts. Photo: Simon Hodgson.

Genio (Elena Xanthoudakis) with the Fates or beasts. Photo: Simon Hodgson.

As they descend into the underworld, fluorescent tubes attached along some of the pipe-branches at erratic angles over head turn on, glowing violet-blue. The footlights project crazy shadows of the branches on the back wall and ceiling, turning the theatre into a kind of planetarium. The shadows are like the delicate bare twigs of winter or a tangle of thorns, recalling the wood of the Suicides in Canto XIII of Dante’s Inferno. The chorus is now ectoplasmic, playing the ghosts of the dead. Orfeo follows Genio, walking round and round in a tight circle while the chorus sings, its harmonies very raw like a moaning howling chant, with open 4ths and 5ths, recalling medieval sacred music. This has a certain logic too since the ghosts sing that they haven’t heard the music of mortals for 500 years, which from Haydn’s day would bring us back to the height of the middle ages.

As Orfeo soothes and consoles the ghosts with his singing, sharing the mercy and pity the gods dropped on him (“like the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath”). The light tubes’ colours change gradually, some warming to green, some to yellow or orange. There is a sudden jarring harmonic change in the choral music as they sing “Trionfi oggi pietà ne’ campi inferni” which comes off as ironic, maybe even mocking. It may be that Haydn intended this to be more ambiguous, but it does mark the beginning of the very strange, erratic changes in mood which increase until the end.

Pluto finally appears on a balcony two levels above and behind the stage, Persephone at his side. He seems to be appeased, but the music makes this ambiguous again. Their clownish costumes add to the ambiguity. Genio’s wig, black outer dress layer, and finally gloves come off and becomes Euridice again.

Orfeo and Euridice have one last duet alone where they confirm with experience their feeling that the afterlife holds no appeal without one another’s company. Euridice dies again, but it feels more like a dissolution without the finality of death, because the the orchestra swings again into yet another mood, trombones entering (which to Mozart were supernatural instruments, which also appear at the end of Don Giovanni; Haydn also puts in near this point a little turn from Don Giovanni, no doubt an homage to Mozart) and the light-tubes all suddenly turn blood red in sympathy. The beast trio run about with the orchestra in a brief mad orgy before fleeing. The effect is truly frightening, maybe a little exciting too, though. It feels more like the first stage in a rebirth by fire than the end of the world per se. The chorus’ screaming is a bit overdone here, since it makes the orchestra’s detail hard to hear for a moment.

Orfeo’s aria at this point is less of a lament than a descent into madness. The bouncy major key melody in the orchestra, recalling that of the middle of the overture, reminded me of Adolph Adams music for Giselle, when the mad scene in that ballet is accompanied by tearing strings changing to a gentler major key melody in turn bringing back Giselle’s original love leitmotif. Haydn here starts to move beyond the major-minor key dichotomy, creating major melodies which are sad, something like which Beethoven developed further in his own style.

In Act V the mood of the chorus changes as erratically as the orchestra’s. The male half of the chorus disappears and the women move in to surround Orfeo, stripping off their dresses, approaching him slowly in their black underwear. The pitch of their singing is high and the tone tense and close to screaming as they try to lure Orfeo into their “life of pleasure.” Orfeo’s words can’t be taken too seriously at this point, I think, especially his chauvinistic, irrational outlash against women, as he is losing his mind. The tempest descends on them with very effective old-fashioned sheet-metal and rolling canvas thunder and rain sound effects. Pulsing blue footlights project those twisting shadows on the walls and ceiling again, but now the filaments tangle and untangles, creating an effect like a giant plasma globe. The trio of beasts returns holding a musical score, from which they tear out pages as the music in the orchestra itself unravels. Orfeo doesn’t resist, welcoming the end, as the chorus-maenads tear off his shirt, made from a fabric like nylon stockings, they stretch its arms twice their length in tearing it apart, effectively and bloodlessly implying Orfeo’s dismemberment. The chorus then in turn is destroyed by the tempest. So the opera ends, though some think Haydn never finished it or may have made alterations after seeing it performed. There is no singing head, washed into the Aegean, to end the opera, but rather the world would seem to be destroyed, returned to chaos. Then again there is no concrete resolution and the end is left open.

The intense experience of the opera still on my mind as I walked back through Angel Place, I took a wrong turn and started up the stairs to the Ivy nightclub. I froze as I saw the partiers all in black stumping down in their heels from the dark cavernous place behind, exactly like the maenads and satyrs of the chorus. In fact maenads were depicted in ancient painted pottery with twining ivy leaves, and they were said to have drunk ivy-ale with their wine. This was a bit too close to home, though.

Elena Xanthoudakis gave her Euridice depth and strength and a romantic sensibility through her sensitive interpretation of the spirit of Haydn’s music. Her acting was subtle and natural for opera and her duets with Andrew Goodwin’s Orfeo sensual, their voices mixing beautifully, something like clarinets and oboes. Her voice has a personality of its own with its beautiful expressive texture and she also has a sensitivity to space, albeit assisted by the good acoustics at Angel place, her voice just filling out the theatre and her fireworks just popping the roof off. She modulates the tone of her voice to express emotion rather than resorting to adding unnatural breathiness or other such sentimental effects. She changed her tone completely as Genio, maintaining an unvarying cool tone and channelled an otherness suggesting the character’s elfin kindness. Either part would be technically demanding on its own, but Xanthoudakis sang consistently and beautifully from the first bar.

Andrew Goodwin’s warm tenor, rich and similar to the period oboe in the orchestra, but never shrill, and his acting were very expressive of the philosopher-poets conundrum. He mover easily and poetically from consoling logic to the fey darkness of a romantic breed of hero and finally madness, but with neither cliché nor literal-mindedness.

Derek Welton made Creonte’s changes in attitude seem natural and subtle from Sarastro-like coolness without excessive pedantry, to love’s convert in seeing his daughter with Orpheus, to vengefulness and finally resignation and grief. He was an effective foil to Orpheus, as expressed physically and musically as well as dramatically. His bass was gentle and textured and a pleasure to listen to, especially alongside Xanthoudakis and Goodwin.

The Cantillation chorus sang with precision and warmth. Their more banal lines never came across comically, but they were able to express them in a way which made them ambiguous and fit into the duets in a sensible way. They balanced nicely with the duets, fitting in in the background without undue domination. They also managed the music’s acrobatic changes in mood gracefully.

The Orchestra of the Antipodes had a very interesting colour with its mixture of period, reproduction period and modern instruments from all over the globe. This combination is perfectly suited to the aspect of Haydn which uses stylistic changes (temporal and spatial) as a dimension of expression. The precise attacks of the strings were very satisfying. Anthony Walker directed his players nimbly across the gulfs of sudden changes in mood and easily moved from baroque-like to romantic. In particular, the voices of Erin Halyard’s piano, Genevieve Lang’s harp and Daniel Yeadin’s cello blended beautifully, more than the sum of the parts, to recreate the great mythical poet’s lyre.

Brad Clark’s and Alexandra Sommer’s design was elaborate — a very pleasant surprise for anyone expecting a quasi-concert opera — but moreover was inventive and creative and above all artistic. They have a sense of wonder and drama sympathetic to the myth but did not dominate or steal from the stage presence of the small cast at all. Bernie Tan-Hayes’ lighting complimented the set and integrated totally with it, showing just as much inventiveness and artistry.

About the author

Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller lives in Sydney and writes mostly about music and theatre, especially ballet and opera.

He holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Sydney, and once studied the piano and trombone.

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