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Orpheus, wacky: Orpheus in the Underworld.

Love Is Hell

By B.A. Nilsson

Orpheus in the Underworld

By Jacques Offenbach, conducted by Jean-Marie Zeitouni, directed by Eric Einhorn

Glimmerglass Opera, July 9

 

Orphée et Eurydice

By Christoph Willibald Gluck/Hector Berlioz, conducted by Julian Wachner, directed by Lillian Groag

Glimmerglass Opera, July 14

 

The 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, looked on.

Orpheus, straight: (l-r) Pabyan and Maniaci in Orphée et Eurydice.

Glimmerglass 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 last week.

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 the orchestra.

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 character.

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 on display.

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.

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