January 5, 2014 9:04 pm

La descente d’Orphée aux enfers, Gotham Chamber Opera, New York – review

This production of Charpentier’s opera was a triumph of art over logistical handicaps
Jamilyn Manning-White, centre, as Eurydice©Richard Termine

Jamilyn Manning-White, centre, as Eurydice

The Gotham Chamber Opera, led by the ever-enterprising Neal Goren, likes to do odd things in odd places. And it usually does them elegantly.

Last week the company travelled downtown to the Georgian environs of St Paul’s Chapel, built in 1764. The vehicle turned out to be a long-neglected Baroque bow to mythological ritual, Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s La descente d’Orphée aux enfers.

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A house of worship does not easily accommodate opera. Acoustics are echo-prone. Sightlines, even with a makeshift platform at the front, tend to be problematic. Exits and entrances are limited to side spaces and the central aisle. An organ loft harbours ascendant spirits. Still, with goodwill on both sides of the non-existent proscenium, art can triumph over logistical handicaps. Such was the happy case here, most of the time.

Andrew Eggert, the director, moved his resourceful players up and down, in and out, cleverly. Doug Elkins made the singers, especially the women, dance with expressive grace. Vita Tzykum designed picturesque costumes that defined roles and moods in white, black and pastoral pastel. S. Katy Tucker devised decorative projections, some of which malfunctioned, alas, on opening night.

The pretty-precious score, probably created in 1686, relies on intimate emotive formulas and gentle platitudes to relate the beginning of the Orpheus legend. As performed here, the super-succinct two-part narrative ends with the hero reclaiming his bride from Pluto’s hell. Musicologists conjecture that Charpentier wrote, or intended to write, a third act, possibly even a fourth. Pragmatic evidence, however, remains elusive.

Hidden behind a scrim and communicating with his strong cast via camera, Goren sustained supportive momentum with a few seemingly authentic instruments. The title role was originally conceived as a haute-contre hero, but singers of this elevated voice-type are now virtually extinct. Daniel Curran, a conventional lyric-tenor, coped sweetly with his adjusted vocal lines. Jamilyn Manning-White’s pellucid soprano exuded innocence as Eurydice, and Jeff Beruan’s burly bass boomed darkly as Pluto. Despite inevitable compromises, Orpheus’s stylish, stylised descent provided an illuminating hour at the opera.


gothamchamberopera.org

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