Orphée et Eurydice
by Christoph Willibald Gluck
By Lori Dana
Any student of Greek myth knows the story of Orpheus (Orphée), son of the god Apollo and musician of extraordinary talent. Orpheus is enthralled by the beautiful nymph Eurydice, and eventually marries her. Theirs is a deep and passionate love and they live happily together for many years. Tragically, Orpheus loses his beloved wife when she dies unexpectedly. Emotionally devastated, he attempts to follow her into the underworld. Protected by the gods, Orpheus is able to travel where no other human being might survive, entrancing demons and monsters with his exquisite music, and ultimately impressing the lord of the underworld, Hades himself. Orpheus is allowed to return with Eurydice to the land of the living under one condition: he is not to look upon Eurydice until after they have walked into the light. Eurydice, not understanding why her husband will not meet her gaze, pleads with him pitifully, and he cannot refuse the woman he loves so deeply. The power of his love, combined with human frailty, causes Orpheus to lose Eurydice forever.
Lyric Opera’s stunning new production of Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice, a brilliant contemporary adaptation by creative powerhouse John Neumeier (director, choreographer, designer of costumes, sets, and lighting) combines bold, modern visuals with the most classic of opera forms: principal vocalists, full orchestra, and chorus joined by the corps de ballet. In a dramatic announcement less than 36 hours before the opening curtain, Lyric Opera unveiled a long-term agreement in which The Joffrey Ballet becomes its resident dance company at the start of the 2020/21 season, sharing the legendary Civic Opera House stage for both opera and ballet-only performances. If Saturday night’s production was an example of what audiences can regularly expect from this collaboration, then the new agreement bodes very well for fans of both institutions.
The cast of Orphée et Eurydice is tiny by Grand Opera standards, with only three principal singing roles. This is a work rooted in the internal life of its protagonist, driven by emotion not by action. Thus it is the perfect vehicle for dance, with the men and women of the Joffrey expressing the interior lives of the characters, as well as providing physical transitions from scene to scene. That role in opera is usually filled by the chorus, which in this production acts as the classical Greeks intended, commenting on the dramatic action from the anonymous environs of the orchestra pit. Under the baton of British maestro Harry Bickett (whose vast international experience is crowned for opera lovers by his role as chief conductor of the Santa Fe Opera), the Lyric Opera Orchestra gives an impeccable performance of Gluck’s stunningly beautiful score, despite the periodically crowded conditions.
In his role as production designer, Neumeier wisely chooses to keep it simple. A black stage upon which translucent mirrored panels revolve to create and recreate performance spaces emphasizes the illusory quality of the characters’ lives, while brightly lit white vignettes that appear and disappear provide intimate spaces for scenes between Orphée and Eurydice to play out. The director has reimagined the classic story as a modern relationship between a choreographer and his wife. In the opening scene, a brightly lit single doorway morphs into the interior of a dance studio where rehearsal is in session. Orphée (tenor Dmitry Korchak) is directing a scene from his new ballet Isle of the Dead. On the apron of the stage is an easel holding a painting of the same name by Arnold Böcklin, the choreographer’s inspiration for his piece. Orphée argues with Euridyce (Andriana Chuchman), the company’s principal dancer, who has arrived late. Incensed, she storms out of the rehearsal. We hear a crash, and then the shocking sight of a small car plunging through the set. Moments later, Eurydice’s body rolls from beneath the wheels.
In their shock and grief, members of the dance company comfort Orphée and each other in a dance sequence laden with sorrow and symbolism. Dancers hover between life and death as they pass before and behind the dark glass panels, and Bickett’s illuminated reflection as he directs the orchestra creates a haunting, prescient image. Orphée’s assistant Amour (Lauren Snouffer) attempts to comfort him by recalling the myth of Orpheus, and his journey into the underworld. As Orphée grapples with his loss by retreating into the myth, the audience is treated to what was at its inception, a very new take on operatic performance. In place of stand-alone arias, Gluck created a series of short, straightforward vocal pieces, which combined with expressive dances, orchestral and choral interludes, build emotional impetus in a way that conventional operas of the time did not.
Korchak’s clear, natural tone is a perfect fit for this contemporary musical approach. Getting off to a sweet, strong start in the opening night’s first act, the Russian tenor’s voice sounded a bit strained and flat in the challenging “L’espoir renaît dans mon âme”, sung in the more florid Italian style. Mr. Korchak’s voice opened up beautifully in Act 2, where he delivers heartrending versions of two short arias preceding the Dance of the Furies. For her part, Ryan Opera Center alumnus Adriana Chuchman not only delivers a stellar vocal performance, but also displays a remarkable talent for the dance. Lauren Snouffer’s beautiful, athletic soprano rounds out this small, but outstanding group of principal voices. Lyric Opera’s Orphée et Eurydice is a creative collaboration in which vocalists, dancers, chorus, and instrumentalists are equally important in bringing the drama to life onstage. Exciting casting of strong, young voices; supported by the superb resident talents of the Lyric Opera Chorus and Orchestra make this venture a resounding success, and the welcome addition of The Joffrey Ballet elevates it to the superlative.
(“Orphée et Eurydice,” presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago through October 15 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive 312-827-5600)
Orphée et Eurydice production photos by Todd Rosenberg.