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‘Orfeo’ gets much from small moments

Owen Willetts plays Orfeo in Boston Baroque’s performance of “Orfeo ed Euridice” at Jordan Hall.
Owen Willetts plays Orfeo in Boston Baroque’s performance of “Orfeo ed Euridice” at Jordan Hall.Brian Feulner for the Boston Globe

The history of opera exactly coincides with the history of people complaining about opera. But few can claim a better-heeded cavil than Francesco Algarotti, whose “Essay on the Opera” inspired one of the genre’s most indelible masterpieces. Armed with Algarotti’s strictures, composer Christoph Willibald Gluck and librettist Raniero Calzabigi produced “Orfeo ed Euridice,” their 1760s avant-garde translation of the mythological tale of the musician who sings his way into hell to retrieve his deceased wife, performed on Friday and Saturday by Boston Baroque and conductor Martin Pearlman.

Algarotti admired the “ingenious machine” of opera, but warned that, like all machines, “the more complicated they are, the more they are likely to fail.” While a certain New York opera company’s current production of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle might well take that caution literally to heart, Algarotti was more concerned with aesthetics: the increasingly overstuffed formality of Baroque opera, which he saw as a dramatically enervated factory for mere virtuosic display. Gluck’s solution was concise momentum, eliminating repeats and reprises (and subplots), integrating the chorus into the dramatic flow, composing numbers such that they might be spliced together into a single, focused narrative line.

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Boston Baroque’s production, streamlined and nimble, was designed to vindicate the less-is-more aspects of Algarotti and Gluck’s ideals. They opted for the original Italian edition, forgoing the extra choruses and ballets (and orchestration) Gluck would add to the French version to flatter Parisian fashion. Pearlman gave everything a measure of choreographic lilt, and period instruments kept the sound transparent and lean. David Gately’s staging was simple, the emotional geography realized by the distance and angle between characters, the scenery limited to simple but effective lighting changes: a cool blue grove, a blood-red underworld. (Gately’s one misstep was over-blocking Orfeo’s famous “Che farò senza Euridice,” its anguished edge dulled in busy transit.)

The ballet that Gluck and Calzabigi did leave in was here choreographed by Gianni Di Marco in fluid style. A four-dancer corps (Li-Ann Lim, Olga Marchenko, Kseniya Melyukhina, and Kate Penner) hewed to largely classical lines, while featured soloists Henoch Spinola and Ruth Bronwen Whitney engaged in more tensile, athletic duets — in particular, a pas de deux in which, in their efforts to avoid each others’ gaze (a mirror of the title characters’ predicament), the pair became ever more entwined and entangled.

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And the singing was excellent. British countertenor Owen Willetts, as Orfeo, was tasked with carrying most of the opera, and he was superb: a ringing but warm voice, an anchored physicality, and acting skills to match the role’s demands for subtle intensity. Euridice was soprano Mary Wilson, a good vocal match for Willetts — similar in tone, but a softer-edged attack. Courtney Huffman was Amor, her voice marked by candid brightness, playing the god of love as a slightly flighty cross between Verdi’s Oscar and a John-Hughes-movie tomboy. The chorus’s diction took a scene or two to come into full focus, but their tone was ever polished and clear, even a bit hair-raising in their Underworld-Furies mode.

But, true to Gluck’s preference for distillation over amplification, this was an “Orfeo” in which the drama coalesced around small moments: Whitney, as Euridice’s ghost, gliding en pointe through the background of Orfeo’s grief; Orfeo’s stifled joy as he retakes his wife’s hand for the first time. Opera, of course, continued and continues to thrive on spectacle. But Gluck showed that the spectacle’s intensity wasn’t necessarily dependent on its scale. Sometimes, an eloquent gesture is all the machinery you need.

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Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@
gmail.com.