An especially festive event marking the outset of the 2018-2019 concert season in Tel Aviv was the debut performance of the Orpheus Opera Ensemble, established, directed and conducted by Yair Polishook, an artist familiar to many of us as a baritone in the world of opera and oratorio. Stage direction was in the hands of Shirit Lee Weiss. Taking place in the Zucker Hall of Heichal HaTarbut, Tel Aviv, on October 3rd, Tel Aviv, the new ensemble presented the Israeli premiere of G.P.Telemann’s three-act opera “Orpheus or The Marvellous Constancy of Love”.
The first performance of this three-act opera took place in Hamburg in 1726 at the Gänsemarkt Opera House, of which Telemann himself was music director. Ten years later, the opera was given the new (and more accurate) title of “Vengeful Love, or Orasia, the Widowed Queen of Thrace”. When the text was finally published in 1736, Telemann’s name did not appear on it, his (and Handel’s) friend German theorist Johann Mattheson described a concert performance of the opera as a “wretched concoction” and the opera sank into obscurity. It was unearthed in 1978; its release on Harmonia Mundi was recognition of the fact that the work was indeed the product of Telemann’s pen. Apart from one small section, the score has survived virtually complete. Based on a libretto by Frenchman Michel du Boullay, Telemann has added to the actions of Orasia, widowed Queen of Thrace. As well as murdering Eurydice, of whose love for Orpheus she is jealous, she eventually kills Orpheus himself. In keeping with Hamburg opera taste of the time, Telemann inserted arias in French and Italian - in language and, and no less convincingly, in style. The majority of the score is in German, but arias of languid sorrow and choruses are mostly in French, and those expressing rage and love are, most fittingly, Italian arias. Telemann’s orchestral writing also reflects Hamburg’s more adventurous approach. Brilliant and subtle, it not only serves as the accompaniment as Telemann uses the instrumental ensemble to heighten and reflect the drama.
Six very fine and competent Israeli singers of the younger generation were cast in the solo roles, their singing of Telemann’s exquisite ensemble sections also providing much delight. Daniela Skorka’s gorgeous, creamy voice, musicality and involvement gave pleasing expression to the role of Eurydice, a relatively small role – Eurydice is dead well before the end of Act 1. Singing with joyful, innocent simplicity showed her as very much the opposite of Orasia in personality. Soprano Tal Ganor’s natural, lively stage presence and expressive face made for a warmly lyrical-, then aggressive Ismene (Orasia’s handmaiden); she also played the role of the nymph Cephisa, with its music of beauty and brilliance. With much confident singing, tenor Eitan Drori gave vivid portrayals of the complex, scheming and tragi-comic Eurimedes as well as of the wicked Ascalax, as he indulged in the pictorialism in arias of both. His duet with Orpheus (Oded Reich) “Angenehmer Aufenthalt” was indeed one of the evening’s highlights. The role of Pluto was assumed with imposing resonance and authority by bass Pnini Leon Grubner; no large role, it nevertheless offers some splendid music, as in the da capo aria “Ruhet, ihr Folten gemarterter Seelen”.
With his changes in emphasis on the plot, Telemann’s “Orpheus” becomes a Baroque psychodrama, as it revolves around Orasia, Queen of Thrace, with her narcissism and obsessive love-hate personality. Totally immersed in the role, Hadas Faran, equipped with a suitably substantial voice, displayed secure handling of the bravura and soaring notes which Telemann calls for at the most dramatic moments of her tirades, as she gave potent meaning to the two Italian vengeance arias and to her final, pared-down lament in French. Telemann’s Orpheus, with his anti-hero tendency, is a character more richly complicated than Gluck’s hero as he navigates the roller coaster of love lost, won again through hardship and devotion, and finally, irrevocably lost. Baritone Oded Reich’s realization of the tragic character of Orpheus is profound and insightful, a man loved but spurned, helpless and alone in his own suffering. Reich’s acquired dramatic insight and convincingly emotional performance integrate deftly with his musical reading of each aria, served well by his stable voice and luxuriant palette of baritone colors.
Stage- and costume design was undertaken by Maya Meidar Moran. Backed by long, transparent, colored drapes, with which the singers interacted at times, the stage was otherwise bare. But it was a space bristling with movement and physical- and emotional energy. There being no static moments, there was much to follow in the artists’ movements, body language and expressions as they made maximal use of the stage space. There was a mix of costumes - from modern day-wear to lingerie, to night-wear, to risqué cabaret wear and modish rainwear (the latter effective in the scene in Hades). Certain of the costumes seemingly imparted clear messages as to the universal questions of physical attraction, promiscuity, impulsivity, and jealousy.
With stylish, nuanced playing of Telemann’s outstanding instrumental score - accompaniments, dances, occasional folk elements, and splendid obligato playing - the small Baroque instrumental ensemble added delicacy, flair, and elegance to the musical canvas. The enthusiasm of Polishook’s conducting was tangible, bringing out the best in- and creating balance between his uniformly strong singers and ensemble and keeping the action moving at a natural pace. Add to that Telemann's subtle use of modulations, of different keys to fit the personae, and of occasional dissonances to underscore the harshest of emotions and one is sorely tempted to invalidate Johann Mattheson’s judgment. With this sparkling, festive performance of G.P.Telemann’s “Orpheus”, Yair Polishook’s vision of an Israeli Baroque opera company of home-grown talents has made a compelling case!
Photo: Yoel Levy