Don’t look back in anger

Review - Gluck’s Orfeo at the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos, Lisbon

BY Gerald Malone   /  9 November 2019

Lisbon’s Teatro Nacional de Säo Carlos, the country’s foremost opera house, is an understated gem – on my bucket list for years. It was built in 1792, after the Tejo Opera House was destroyed in the earthquake of 1755. It boasts an elegantly understated classical façade, featuring a portico of three elegant arches, and a third-floor loggia with a garlanded clock. The 1,150 seat auditorium has the familiar, intimate feel of houses of that era spattered across Europe.

The Portuguese Royal Family liked it so much that, when Napoleon forced them to flee to Brazil in the early 19th century, they had a replica built in Rio de Janeiro – as one does when en congés forcés.

But let me get my hands on the renovator with the fixation for chocolate coloured paint. The interior – where it isn’t originally gilded – has been confected into a drab version of a Cadbury’s Milk Tray selection. Dark chocolate pillars; milk chocolate balustrades; cocoa butter curtains; a swirling, mixed praline ceiling; and ruby chocolate velvet seats. The celebrated chef, Barry Callebaut, might think he was smart, inventing his Ruby Chocolate confection in 2017, but Säo Carlos got there first.

And the lighting is horrible. Who bought that job lot of energy efficient bulbs that glare intrusively?  The effect, combined with the chocolate, was nauseous. A revamp is long overdue, but cash is short.

In the last two years the house has trodden a rocky road of turbulent industrial relations. On 1st October soprano Elisabete Matos took over as Artistic Director from the battered Brit, Patrick Dickie, a quixotic choice. He resigned in despair, after only three years in post, in late spring, having failed in his ambition to schedule ten main stage performances per season. This year the company is managing only seven, and one of those is the concert version of Gluck’s Orfeo reviewed below. The local gossip has it that the strikes and increasingly desperate budgeting crisis afflicting the house were the last straw for Mr. Dickie.

Doubts about plunging an internationally renowned soprano with no experience of management and direction into this demanding Götterdämmerung of Portuguese opera are rife in Lisbon. Watch this space.

On to Grecian legend – and the concert performance of Gluck’s Orfeo. Some back history. The Orfeo and Euridice legend has been latched onto by composers for centuries. First out of the traps was Germi. Who? Sorry, no first name or biography extant. Difficult to corroborate his contribution, or even speculate – as not a note of his music survives. But, there are records of a play by Politani, with Germi’s music, performed at the court of Duke Ludivico Gonzaga, Mantua on 18th July 1472. This version is not on Spotify.

Three times since has the Orfeo story stood at the crossroads of musical


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