Last night I went to a concert in Great Barrington, a beautiful New England town in the Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts—one of my favorite places in the world. (Someday I’ll have to make a favorite places list.)
It was held in an old movie theater, one of those classic ones, with a raked balcony from which you can see the stage perfectly from any seat, and those mini-balcony box seats running along the sides between the balcony and the stage. The kind where in old movies royalty sat, or the politico bigwigs, or those two old coots on the old Muppets TV show who were constantly heckling the performers or making loud jokes at their expense.
Yeah, a classic old movie palace, and in this case one restored to something very close to its original glory, after being saved from the wrecking ball and some boxy modern building being put in its place.
I went to the concert because my oldest child, my daughter, is a singer in the Berkshire Bach Society’s choral group. I saw her perform last year with them, a terrific concert that made me very proud, as her singing, and just about everything else she’s ever done, always has.
But this wasn’t a choral concert. Instead it was a very early opera, by Christopher Willibald Gluck, based on the Orpheus legend, but in Italian—ORFEO ED EURIDICE.
There were three soloists who played the three leads—Orfeo, Eurdice, and Amor, the goddess of love. The chorus sang all the other parts—the shepherds and shepherdesses who lament Euridice’s death, the Furies who at first deny Orfeo entrance to the underworld but eventually give in to his pleading song, the blessed spirits dancing in the Elysian Fields, the Shades who bring Euridice to him, the friends who celebrate the return of Euridice and Orfeo from the underworld and death.
There was a small but instrumentally complete orchestra, and the first thing my older son and I responded to, giving each other looks of pleasant surprise, was how competent it was, as good as any I’ve heard anywhere else over the years.
The singer with the toughest job was Teresa Buchholz—not just because she has the most singing to do and has to convey the emotions of a grieving lover moving from sadness to anger to resolve to pleading to etc., but also because she’s a woman playing the part of Orfeo lamenting the death of his wife and his determination to bring her back from death.
The role was originally written for a castrati, but now has to be sung by a woman since they don’t castrate singers anymore to get men with that high a range. And Buchholz sang it well. As did Claire Weber in the part of Amor.
Along with the chorus, Buchholz and Weber sing all the music in the first act. During the intermission my son and I talked about how surprised we were by the level of excellence of all the musicians and singers. We were both having a great time, feeling completely impressed and entertained and captivated and moved by every aspect of the performances so far.
The chorus, made up of ten sopranos (of which my daughter is one), ten altos, nine tenors and eight basses, filled the theater with the richness and volume of their voices. And coupled with the amazingly full sound the orchestra was getting, with a handful of violins, one cello, one bass, a harp, two English horns, two trumpets, several flutes and oboes, and a percussionist, we felt we were actually experiencing the opera the way it was meant to be, at least musically.
I felt so happy for my daughter, and for me and my ancestors, that one of ours had achieved what one thread in our clan had always aspired to—to be a strong and accomplished part of this kind of classical creative intelligence manifested in one glorious performance. My son, who is an accomplished musician himself, and myself, a one time musician, and both lovers of music, had come to see his sister, my daughter, expecting talent and competence, but not necessarily at this level. It was seriously contending with the best of whatever we’ve both experienced in New York or L. A. and other centers of creative activity.
And even though the Berkshires is known for its culture, across the spectrum, from popular to the most esoteric, and this region is full of amazingly talented people, including many whose names are household words, and many more whose names are relatively unknown but shouldn’t be, still, this was an exceptional evening so far.
And then the second act began, and soon Euridice made her appearance. Played by the young Welsh-born soprano, Rachel Schutz, the entire evening was transformed from one of being delighted by the high level of artistry on display and the wonderful musical experience of all these competent performers coming together and doing work even they might have been surprised at, into one of those handful of most memorable nights of your life as part of an audience at plays and concerts and the performing arts in general.
Schutz not only sang brilliantly, looked beautiful, and fit the role of Euridce perfectly, she acted the role so incredibly well, beyond almost anything I’ve experienced on the opera stage or even in musical theater, or for that matter, nonmusical plays.
It was like one of those epiphanies, when you’re watching someone perform a feat that is beyond normal human capabilities, like a dancer taking regular rhythms and movements past what you would think any human could do, or a singer hitting a note higher or holding a note longer or executing an inhumanly difficult musical passage with seeming ease.
It was like that, only more. Even not understanding Italian, and I suspect even not knowing the story of Orpheus and Euridice, there was no missing her anguish at thinking Orfeo won’t look at her because death has robbed her of her beauty and he no longer loves her. Her voice quavering exactly the way it would were she truly feeling that kind of anguish, the depths of her despair was so real, I felt the wetness on my cheek before I realized I was crying.
And as often happens in moments like this, her amazing performance raised everyone else’s game. Suddenly the chorus sounded even more perfect, more rich, more dramatically engaged with the story, as did Buchholz as Orfeo and Weber as Amor when she returned.
When Buchholz and Schutz did their Third Act duet, the emotional current running between each of them and the other, as well as between both of them and the audience, was so electric, I wanted to stand up and shout.
I have no idea how the rest of the audience was experiencing all this, but I assume many if not most of them were sharing my reactions. I know my son and daughter-in-law were having an experience close to mine, and my daughter later told me how she and many in the chorus and even the stage manager or someone behind the scenes commented on how extraordinary the performance was.
This is a production with minimal stage props and movement and set design, with the chorus having rehearsed only with a piano up until days before the concert, and only a few times with the three lead singers. It had nerve-racking last minute cuts and putting the show up without it ever having totally clicked perfectly and then Bam! A night to remember.
The key for me was Rachel Schutz. Like I said, I have rarely been moved so completely and impressed so greatly by any stage performance of any kind. It ranks right up there with the greatest I’ve seen (another list for the future) and is the reason the creative arts have so often saved my life.
If human beings are capable of creating something as beautiful as what I experienced last night, then there will always be hope for us. And if Rachel Shutz doesn’t get the fame her talent warrants, like many amazingly talented people I’ve been exposed to in my life never did, at least after last night she will forever be one of the greatest revelations of the capacity for human greatness I’ve ever known.
[PS: Now I know how Maria Callas opera fanatics felt. I have only seen a few operas in my life, and this wasn't a full production, and Rachel Schutz may have had the best night she'll ever have (though I doubt that) but I am a fan for life (as I already was of my daughter's). I would attend more operas if I knew Schutz was singing in them. But rereading this post after having written it at the end of an exhausting day made me realize I missed what I'm sure a lot of the audience (including my son) felt was the most dramatic and singular aspect of this concert. Not only did Buchholz have to play a man, and she did her best to move and posture and emote like one, though that didn't work as well as it might (my daughter-in-law found it distracting and I found it not totally successful, until the arrival of Rachel Schutz who, like I said, elevated everyone's game), Buchholz also, as the climactic moment of the production, had to kiss Schutz on the mouth. Certainly nothing we haven't seen in popular culture, but I suspect a rarity in "high" culture. I didn't find it surprising or distracting, but like I said, others did and I can see why. The singing had effected me so strongly I accepted the unconventional way of fulfilling this romantic ending convention, and I also was expecting it, surprised it didn't happen earlier, when Orfeo turns to finally gaze upon Euridice and they embrace and in most productions kiss before she dies again. At that point in this production they embraced and kissed each others cheeks, so I thought maybe they didn't want to stir up any controversy, though in the Berkshires, they're not kissing may have stirred up more. But in the end we did get to see these two powerful women not only embrace like lovers, but kiss like ones too, and it seemed at once both not surprising and unexpected, a pretty clever way to end a show. And, I also forgot to mention James Bagwell, the man who not only runs and rehearses and conducts the Berkshire Bach Singers, but conducted the orchestra as well as the chorus in this production and directed the whole show. Not to mention he's married to the lead singer, Teresa Buchholz. He's responsible for bringing it all together and obviously made a lot of right choices leading up to the performance, so kudos to him as well, and if you see him conducting anywhere near you, check him out. But above all, keep your eye out for Rachel Schutz.]