wacky: Orpheus in the Underworld.
in the Underworld
Jacques Offenbach, conducted by Jean-Marie Zeitouni, directed
by Eric Einhorn
Glimmerglass Opera, July 9
Christoph Willibald Gluck/Hector Berlioz, conducted by Julian
Wachner, directed by Lillian Groag
Glimmerglass Opera, July 14
first two entries in the Glimmerglass Opera’s season-long
tribute to the Orpheus legend are terrifically contrasting
works, but both of them showed us that hell is a place of
overacting. Turn an opera chorus loose on something as tasty
as hell—especially as imagined for the Offenbach—and it becomes
a festival of face-pulling.
Then again, the story of Orpheus’s wife-retrieving trip through
the underworld was turned on its ear in the Offenbach version,
in which Orpheus conspires with Pluto to get rid of the spouse
he dislikes, only venturing after her when Public Opinion
(a one-woman chorus sung by Joyce Castle) warns him of a potential
backlash. It’s a rollicking, tuneful piece that set the style
soon inhabited by the works of Gilbert and Sullivan.
Excellent musical performances abounded in this production,
with extra acclaim for soprano Juliet Petrus, one of the season’s
Young American Artists Program members, who stepped in for
an ailing Jill Gardner to sing taxing role of Eurydice with
a beautiful command of voice and character. Joélle Harvey’s
Cupid and the imperious Pluto of Marc Heller also showed off
some excellent singing, while Jake Gardner played the womanizing
Jupiter with a deft hand at comedy.
The cartoon-like sets, by Allen Moyer, placed us in a colorful
cornfield for the opening. The underworld was a crimson bordello
in which the inhabitants were costumed like refugees from
a Rocky Horror Show production.
Eric Einhorn directed with a presentational approach well
suited to the material, but he and choreographer E. Loren
Meeker needed to give the chorus more to do—and something
more stylized (think Bob Fosse) for the underworld scenes.
The big musical moment, the galop infernal (known to
most as the can-can), the scene when all should be on their
feet, featured only two dancers (Katarzyna Skarpe towska and
Trey Gillen, both superb) while the others, inexplicably,
straight: (l-r) Pabyan and Maniaci in Orphée et Eurydice.
dramaturge Kelley Rourke, who wrote the libretto for this
production, would do well to study the lyrics of Gilbert.
Comic lyrics need precision in rhymes and scansion, and a
“list” song such as Jupiter’s recounting of his conquests,
was badly in need of pacing and wit.
In C.W. Gluck’s version of the legend, it’s L’Amour, not Public
Opinion, who encourages Orpheus to make the journey to hell,
and the pursuit of love fires a musical through line that
remains gorgeous as ever. Written in 1762 in reaction to the
trend of way-too-complicated music and stories, the opera
encountered complications of its own as it traveled through
Europe, absorbing interpolations along the way.
Hector Berlioz, who regarded Gluck as second only to Beethoven
in musical stature, restored the piece with authentic Gluck
material, and it was this four-act version presented at Glimmerglass
From the start, conductor Julian Wachner proved a deft hand
with the music, keeping it tight but sprightly. John Conklin’s
fanciful set gave us an ancient Thracian square already sporting
ruins, in which the dying Eurydice (Amanda Pabyan) is surrounded
by a busy chorus.
Male soprano Michael Maniaci brought a magnificent stage presence
to the role of Orphée, and his voice, at its high end, is
thrilling. His opening aria “Objet de mon amour” (perhaps
better known as “Chiamo il mio ben”) proved appropriately
powerful, although his lower range frequently got lost behind
Soprano Brenda Rae, a member of the Young American Artists
Program, sang beautifully as L’Amour, with a commanding presence
that nevertheless seemed to radiate the benevolence of her
I don’t know how director Lillian Groag prepped the chorus
for its portrayal of hell-bound inhabitants, but they looked
like a first-year acting class told to mime some manner of
individual torment. You’ve never seen such rending of garments,
such gnashing of teeth. I longed for the Offenbach underworld,
where at least you had garter belts and fishnet stockings
Fortunately, enlightenment soon followed. Literally, as we
entered Elysium and witnessed the appurtenances of the Age
of Enlightenment: Painting, music, books, even a model of
the solar system dressed the set, with each activity performed
during the opening “Dance of the Blessed Spirits.” Which proved
that when you give the chorus something concrete to do, they’ll
do it well.
The lovers’ journey, with Orfée forbidden to look at his distraught
wife, was excitingly rendered, with Maniaci and Pabyan absolutely
convincing in their respective distress. Gluck’s version revises
the myth, with L’Amour giving life to Eurydice yet again—but
the concluding ballet, in which the story is succinctly retold
by dancers Skarpetowska and Gillen, set the record straight—and
the final take-to-the-audience by Maniaci was a look I’ll
never forget, an unexpected and wholly appropriate ending.
These operas continue to run in repertory through August,
with additional Orpheus-inspired operas by Glass, Monteverdi
and Haydn rounding out the season.