The second annual Twin Cities Early Music Festival — three weeks of period instrument and early vocal style performances — presented its finale Friday night, an ambitious and largely successful semi-staging of Gluck's classic 18th-century opera, "Orfeo ed Euridice."
The tale of Orpheus (Orfeo in Italian) and his beloved Euridice and its depiction of the power of art to overcome death has been a popular subject for opera. Some 60 known operas have been based on the story, from Jacopo Peri's "Euridice" in 1600 to Philip Glass' "Orphee" in 1993.
In Gluck's case, the result is music of considerable purity, directness and concision. It was his attempt to eliminate the extravagances and, in many cases, the absurdities of the Baroque opera of his time. The result, however, despite the beauty of the music, can seem stiff and austere, and it doesn't help that the plot is really a series of tableaux rather than a connected story.
The Minnesota Opera, for its production in 2010, enlivened the work by adding dance numbers and a rather intriguing story-within-a-story concept. The early-music performance Friday night, given in the art gallery of Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church, didn't have those resources.
What it did have were performances of impressive dramatic weight by the singers in the three solo roles as well as precise, resonant singing by an 11-member chorus. A feisty little 10-piece orchestra offered playing that was both lively and consistently in tune — no small accomplishment in the period-instrument world. Even so, under the circumstances, it was probably wise that conductor Donald Livingston cut at least a half-hour out of the score.
Two of the singers came from Panama for this production (which was repeated Saturday). These were a young countertenor, Fernando Bustos, who sang Orfeo, and soprano Graciela Saavedra, who portrayed Amore, the Goddess of Love.
Bustos brought a sincerity and an emotional vulnerability to the role that more or less carried the evening, and his high tenor, with its poignant naturalness, had none of the steely sound that mars the singing of so many countertenors. As far as variety of vocal expression and coloring, Bustos is probably not yet in the league of David Daniels, the current champ of countertenors who sang Orfeo for Minnesota Opera, but he is clearly on his way. He sang the great lament, "Che faro senza Euridice?" with such sweetness and tragic dignity that it seemed fresh and new.
Saavedra was a saucy Amore with an agile voice, though a couple of her coloratura flights sounded tentative. Linh Kauffman was a warmly human Euridice exquisitely sung. Both Bustos and Kauffman embodied the "noble simplicity" that Gluck sought in his works for the stage.
The festival itself appears to have sent up a flare proclaiming that early music in the Twin Cities is finally entering its adolescence. Let's hope the momentum builds.
Michael Anthony is a longtime Minneapolis music critic.