Orphée aux enfers, Juilliard Opera Center, New York

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Everyone knows that Lincoln Center hosts two opera houses, the mighty Met and the brave City Opera. We tend to forget a third haven for the lyric muse: the academic Juilliard Opera Center. We remembered on Wednesday.

The bill was Offenbach’s Orphée aux enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld), a parody of ancient mythology seldom ventured by American companies. For many, the chief attraction was the conductor, Anne Manson. She untied every rhythmic and melodic knot of this naughty opéra bouffon with flair that buoyed both a splendid orchestra and an eager cast.

She imposed fast tempos that never seemed rushed, transparent textures that never seemed precious. She sustained propulsion without leaving anyone breathless. It was an elegant achievement.

John Pascoe, who staged and designed this economic, sometimes cinematic production, was less consistent. At his best he offered amusing whimsy.

At his worst he introduced heavy-footed vulgarity. He set the action in a middle-American never-neverland where a cornfield consists of rows of golden letters that repeatedly spell out corn. Funny. He also toyed with icons.

Public Opinion resembled Oprah Winfrey. Eurydice became Marilyn of Hollywood, her skirt in a constant trademark billow (we hadn’t seen that since Stephen Lawless turned Handel’s Semele into the same superstar at the City Opera).

Cupid bore a striking resemblance to Fonzie, the quasi-hero of Happy Days. Mercury impersonated a UPS delivery-man. More enigmatic: Mars re-imagined as an amputee in a wheelchair and Minerva reduced to a head minus a torso on a hospital bed.

All the singers exuded promise. Three did more than that. Brenda Rae fused rare vivacity with virtuosity as Eurydice Monroe. Jeffrey Behrens brought canny bravado to the connivances of Pluto, flashing an exquisite diminuendo in the process.

Isabel Leonard oozed charm as Cupid Winkler. Everyone articulated the French text, both sung and spoken, with care. Still, an English translation might have made better sense.
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