Orpheus in the opera world

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Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, regarded as the first great opera, is now 400 years old, an anniversary that has found the work cropping up at many an opera company. Glimmerglass Opera, outside Cooperstown in rural New York, marks the occasion not just with Monteverdi’s opera but with a whole season of Orpheus-inspired operas. The idea is an arresting one that lends distinction to the first season planned by Michael MacLeod, its British general and artistic director, who, among other things, previously managed John Eliot Gardiner’s Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists and later the City of London Festival.

In an art form that prizes verisimilitude more than it is given credit for, the Orpheus story is ideal material. Not only does its hero constitute mythology’s most celebrated musician, but his music making is also integral to the story, as its power subdues obstacles to his regaining of his bride Eurydice from the Underworld. As the settings at Glimmerglass – by Monteverdi, Gluck, Offenbach, Haydn and Philip Glass – demonstrate, there is no end of variants in the retelling of it. About the only constants are Eurydice’s death and the condition to her release that Orpheus not look at her. But in the Glass, Orpheus is tempted by another woman, and in the Offenbach he and Eurydice don’t even like each other.

Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo appears at Glimmerglass in a co-production with the UK’s Opera North and Norwegian Opera by Christopher Alden that drew a mixed reception at its Leeds debut in February. He sets the action in a starkly designed (by Paul Steinberg) meeting hall of some sort, where characters lounge around as they pay various degrees of attention to Orpheus and his mission. He sings “Possente spirto” before a music stand while gyrating in anguish. Doey Lüthi’s costumes span the opera’s history: Pluto (Christopher Temporelli) might have been at home in Mantua at the time of its premiere there, while Charon (Christopher Job) guards the Underworld in suit and tie, reading a newspaper.

An atmosphere of torpor hung over the whole thing, yet the main events of the drama registered arrestingly. Michael Slattery coupled the vocal virtuosity at the heart of Orpheus’s musicianship with elemental emotional force. Katherine Rohrer was riveting as the Messenger announcing Eurydice’s demise and also scored as Proserpina, in spite of a jaded manner at odds with the latter’s plea for Eurydice’s release. The vulnerable Eurydice, taped to the wall as if crucified, was Megan Monaghan, in lovely voice. The score flowed smoothly under Anthony Walker’s leadership, although the period instruments were not without lapses in intonation.

MacLeod is making Glimmerglass feel ever more like a festival by programming more peripheral events. There are screenings of Orpheus films, including Jean Cocteau’s Orphée, which proved to be essential viewing for Glass’s Orphée, since the latter’s libretto is a shortened version of the film’s dialogue. The addition of music supplies the perfect rationale for turning this Orpheus film into an opera, even if the music embodies Glass’s familiar patterns of repeated chords and syncopations coupled with modest melodic figures. Still, the Glass is the unexpected hit of the season. Sam Helfrich’s production captures the film’s sense of intrigue, while Andrew Lieberman’s smart- looking single set, which resembles the first-class lounge of an airport, serves remarkably well for the diverse settings familiar from the film.

In lieu of the impracticability on stage of characters passing through mirrors to the Underworld, Helfrich imaginatively employs doppelgangers. Philip Cutlip is excellent as the hero, who becomes embroiled in events apparently by chance, with Lisa Saffer’s shining soprano animating the enigmatic figure of the Princess, and Caroline Worra in luminous voice as Eurydice. Anne Manson ably kept track of the score’s repetitive patterns and stressed their verve.

Eric Einhorn’s production of Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, sung in a new translation by Kelley Rourke, is a less happy affair. Among the pluses are the setting of a formal American dining room (sets by Allen Moyer) from the opera’s period for the Olympus scene, Jake Gardner’s randy Jupiter, Joyce Castle’s seasoned Public Opinion, and Joélle Harvey’s rendition of Cupid’s delightful couplets des baiser. But the humour often took vulgar turns on the road to a dispiriting, transvestite- dominated final scene. Jill Gardner was a coarse Eurydice who made heavy weather of high-lying passages. Jean-Marie Zeitouni presided over an agreeable account of the score.

Glimmerglass might be accused of false advertising for saying that it performs Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice in the version by Berlioz. Not that they don’t follow the musical text properly, as set forth in a new Bärenreiter edition. But Berlioz’s compilation, from 1859, was prepared for and indelibly associated with the great mezzo soprano Pauline Viardot, and Glimmerglass used a countertenor, Michael Maniaci. One’s appreciation of the evening will largely turn on one’s reaction to this decision. I would have preferred a good mezzo. Maniaci was capable enough, in spite of patches of hooty sound and some lapses in intonation. But the performance really came alive vocally with the Eurydice of Amanda Pabyan, whose fervently acted, incisively sung portrayal made Orpheus’s decision to turn round and look quite understandable. Whether or not Berlioz would have, I regretted the absence of a continuo harpsichord, which would have given the orchestra more bite under Julian Wachner’s leadership. His tempos were well judged, however. Lillian Groag’s production is fluent and effective, with handsome, Piranesi-inspired sets of classical design by John Conklin.

Glimmerglass makes no secret of the fact that it is looking for a new music director and that the four conductors this summer are candidates. With the Monteverdi and the Glass operas lying outside the mainstream, their respective conductors also participated in a truncated concert version of Haydn’s L’anima del filosofo, each conducting roughly half of what was offered. With a clearer beat and more vital manner, Manson seemed to edge out Walker, but the real star was the soprano Sarah Coburn, who dazzled in Haydn’s demanding arias. Next year four new conductors take to the podium in a season loosely based on Shakespeare.

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