Is there another myth as ripe for operatic treatment as that of Orpheus, who with his singing reclaims his beloved Eurydice from Hades, only to lose her again?
Beginning with Jacopo Peri, whose 1600 "Eurydice" is the earliest surviving opera, more than 60 composers have been drawn to the ancient story. But none of their scores has had the staying power of Christoph Willibald Gluck's "Orpheus and Eurydice," first produced in 1762. With his librettist, Ranieri de' Calzabigi, Gluck pruned away inessentials, creating a concise, fast-moving meditation on love, loss, identity, impulse control and, not least, the power of art.
All these themes are given their due in the Minnesota Opera's dazzlingly inventive, superbly integrated new production, which launched the company's new season Saturday at the Ordway Center in St. Paul.
Stage director Lee Blakeley and colleagues -- set/costume designer Adrian Linford, choreographer Arthur Pita, lighting designer Jenny Cane -- set the action in a baroque theater, a venue not unsuited to an artist's journey. With its multiple prosceniums and antique stage equipment, its conspicuous use of masks and in-your-face lighting, the production repeatedly calls attention to its own theatricality -- nowhere more than at the end of Act Two, when, as the title characters take leave of Elysium, music, masks and much else converge to create a macabre, brilliantly unsettling moment.
This same theatrical self-consciousness is also manifest in the production's most controversial feature. Late in the opera, to ballet music usually cut, Team Blakeley supplies what amounts to a Greek satyr play: a bawdy burlesque, performed as comic relief after a tragic trilogy, that often parodied the story just concluded.
In this case, Pita's masterful choreography, impeccably realized by the Zenon Dance Company, retells the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice as they watch, uncomfortably, and are watched in turn by the audience. For me, this is a dramaturgical home run, neatly subverting Gluck's obligatory happy ending and introducing a latter-day wrinkle that freshens the myth.
The production is no less arresting musically. With his first, searing cries of "Eurydice," countertenor David Daniels -- the first countertenor cast as Orpheus at New York's Metropolitan -- forges a close connection with his listeners that deepens as the performance proceeds. (Operagoers still leery of countertenors owe themselves an evening in Daniels' company; his voice is rich, supple, hauntingly expressive.) To Eurydice, soprano Susanna Phillips brings extraordinary warmth and dramatic focus; it's a pity Gluck doesn't give her more to do. Angela Mortellaro's Cupid-like Amore manages to be both sprightly and disquieting. Leading a nearly vibrato-less St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, conductor Harry Bicket balances pit and stage judiciously (though the offstage band is sometimes too faint). The chorus, crucial in this opera, sings grandly.
Larry Fuchsberg writes regularly about music.
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