Friday, August 10, 2018

Portland Opera unearths "Orfeo ed Euridice" at the cemetery

Photo by Cory Weaver/ Portland Opera.
The legend of Orpheus braving the Underworld to retrieve his wife Eurydice has been such a compelling one that it has been retold in almost every art form. Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice has been the most popular retelling in the operatic form, and Portland Opera performed it for the first time in the company’s 54 year history, presenting Gluck’s 1762 version with stylish grace on Sunday, July 29th at the Newmark Theatre.

Using scenery from Des Moines Metro Opera, this production, directed by Chas Rader-Shieber, updated the sets to the 18th Century of Gluck, placing the opening act in a cemetery with an imposing gate that suggested Vienna’s Central Cemetery, the place where Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, and other famous composers are buried. Because the Orfeo’s legendary musical skills – he could tame wild beasts and pert near anything else by merely singing and playing his lyre – that location was particularly fitting.
Photo by Cory Weaver/ Portland Opera.
Gluck wrote the role of Orfeo for a castrato, but that assignment has fortunately been taken over by contraltos in modern times. In Portland Opera’s production, Sandra Piques Eddy conveyed the distraught emotional state of Orfeo with conviction, smearing dirt from Euridice’s grave all over his white outfit and melting the audience with heartfelt cries of “Euridice!” Piques Eddy sang the many filigree passages with ease, shaping each line with finesse.

Lindsay Ohse was equally persuasive as Euridice, pouring out her demands with hastening urgency that Orfeo look at her. She scored some gasps from the audience when she sat up from underneath a pile of rose petals to rejoin Orfeo in the last scene.
Photo by Cory Weaver/ Portland Opera.
Helen Huang, sporting a gold outfit with wings and two pillowy ears, provided a touch of lightness as the charming and charismatic Amore, sending Orfeo on his quest to Hades to retrieve his beloved. The chorus, expertly prepared by Nicholas Fox, augmented the scenes with outstanding blend, adding depth to the somber opening scene and joy to the triumphant finale. Fox also conducted the chamber-sized orchestra, which sounded excellent even from my perch in the second balcony.

The Furies made a striking presence with hands and arms stretching out of the grave until finally emerging and capturing a bystander, stripping him of all of his clothing down to his underpants, and dragging him down with them. Orfeo didn’t suffer the same fate, because of his musical prowess. Holding his lyre high, he tamed the Furies and was lowered into the tomb untouched.

The setting of the Underworld was the most disappointing thing in this production. I wanted to be taken to a place that was different, but all we got a removal of the cemetery gates, which revealed a set of steps covered in red carpet. The residents of the underworld wore the same black, morning garb that they had in the scene above ground, but they were at least crowned with a garland of red flowers and gold antlers.

The dance of the blessed spirits, choreographed by Jillian Foley, was a refined and tame affair, endearing themselves to the audience by wearing animal-masks. For the final scene, the cemetery gates were lowered into place amidst a snowfall of red petals, a thick pile of which covered Euridice’s grave. After Armore told Orfeo that he had suffered enough, Euridice emerged from the grave, and the final scene, with the joyful reunion of the two lovers, was resplendent with principals, chorus, and orchestra at full volume.
Photo by Cory Weaver/ Portland Opera.

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