Virginia Opera: Orpheus in the Underworld by Jacques Offenbach
Harrison Opera House, Norfolk, VA
September 29, 2015
Review by John Campbell
In contemporary opera you have humans taking lovers outside of marriage but in ancient times the lusty gods add greatly to the possibilities of a tryst. In 1858, Jacques Offenbach (1819-1885) used Gluck’s revered French telling of the story of Orpheus, the poet and singer who could charm wild animals with the beauty of his song, as the basis for his opéra bouffon. Much of the team that brought us the amazing production of Philip Glass’s Orphée, returned to Virginia Opera for Orpheus in the Underworld: Director Sam Helfrich, Set Designer Andrew Lieberman, Lighting Designer Aaron Black and Costume Designer Kaye Voyce, Wigs and Makeup James McGough. Choreographer Justin Boccitto’s dances added to the evening's fun. Conductor Anne Manson has conducted and recorded Philip Glass’s Orphée.
In Offenbach’s telling, sung in English translation by Jeremy Sams, Orpheus and Eurydice are a bickering, married couple. The scene opens with Javier Abreu in shorty pajamas and an open robe and Meredith Lustig in a nightgown, sitting far apart at a very long table covered by a cloth that allows her lover, the comely shepherd Aristeus (Daniel Curran) to caress her feet and calves unseen by Orpheus. All the while the couple snipes at each other—she criticises his music and he, her cheating on him. Instead of a lyre his instrument is a violin. It turns out that Aristeus is actually the god Pluto. She is struck dead and he offers to take her back to the underworld with him. She is delighted and so is Orpheus. Orpheus is currently pursuing a nymph, that is until the strong, vocally focused Margaret Gawrysiak as Public Opinion, storms in, outraged at his attitude. Offenbach’s frothy music both quotes and makes sport of Gluck’s august masterpiece.
In the second scene the table becomes Mount Olympus where the gods sleep and complain that there is nothing else to do. Katherine Polit as Diana enters, distraught that her lover, Actaeon, has disappeared. Jupiter, Virginia Opera veteran Troy Cook, admits he turned Actaeon into a stag to protect her virtue as a chaste goddess. The whole group wakes as Jupiter berates his fellow gods for moral laxity. Juno, mezzo-soprano Leah de Gruyl, implies Jupiter is a hypocrite. Mercury, Kyle Tomlin, swathed in silvery fabric, chimes-in that Pluto is keeping company with Eurydice. Pluto arrives singing, comparing the boring life on Olympus with the excitement of Hades. The gods, fed-up with ambrosia and nectar, call out Jupiter for his immoral behavior. Mercury announces the arrival of Orpheus and Jupiter, secretly hoping for a new romantic conquest, agrees to restore Eurydice to life. The other gods demand that they go with him to Hades, to make sure he will follow through. He agrees and the act ends with a joyful hymn of praise “Go to Hell!” by the superbly rehearsed, 17-member Virginia Opera chorus.
The Virginia Opera Orchestra was provided from the Richmond Symphony, superbly paced by Anne Manson. Manson is the music director of the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra and has been praised for her brilliant ease and assurance on the podium. As so she was.
Too much bickering and not enough stage action at the end of act one was swept away in Act 2 when the Olympians arrive in Hell. Eurydice is being kept out of sight in a comfortable setting—easy chair and TV and guarded by a handsome jailer, John Styx, sung by the bright and powerful baritone Brian Mextorf. He is love-struck by Eurydice and willingly hides her when Pluto arrives with Jupiter. Jupiter is not fooled for one moment that Pluto does not have Eurydice. With the help of Cupid, Kelly Glyptis, Jupiter shucks his business attire, revealing a shiny, metallic-green, super-hero fly costume. He buzzes Eurydice, she succumbs and a passionate duet follows in a scene, both weird and funny. Jupiter reveals his true identity and promises to take her out of Hades during Pluto’s planned party.
At the party some of the guests are dressed as devils, complete with electrified horns and some as angels with sparkly haloes. Eurydice, half angel/half devil, is hoisted above the stage on a lyre-shaped swing as she sings a hymn in praise of Bacchus, god of wine and king of revelry. The party explodes into bright frivolity as Virginia Opera dancers, principal singers and chorus dance and sing. At a lull in the revelry we hear Orpheus’s violin. Pluto reminds Jupiter of his pledge. Public Opinion and Orpheus arrive to lead Eurydice out of Hades but Jupiter sets the condition that Orpheus must not look back at Eurydice until they are out of Hell. As they leave, sly, old Jupiter throws a lightning bolt and Orpheus turns around and sees his wife, losing her forever. General rejoicing closes the evening and all live happily forever, except perhaps, Public Opinion, who knows that moral values have indeed gone to hell.
The only memorable aria from the world’s first great operetta, Orpheus in the Underworld, Couplets du Berger Joli describes the merry task of gathering cornflowers to place at the door of the handsome shepherd, and was beautifully done by Ms. Lustig. Though Orpheus takes his bow before Eurydice, his role was limited though well done. Much bigger roles were Mr. Cook’s Jupiter and Mr. Curran’s Aristeus/Pluto as well as Ms. Lustig’s Eurydice. All four of these principals were excellent as well as the less-heard gods. The famous Can-Can with high-kicking by a line of women in pretty dresses that is so much a part of the closing scene, is an indecorous, popular Parisienne dance of a quadrille pattern from the 1830s that originated in Algeria.
For listeners who want to hear more of Offenbach's music, Amazon offers Offenbach, Arias and Overtures, Frederica von Stade, Scottish Chamber Orchestra led by Antonio de Almeida, RCA CD 09026-68116-2.
Virginia Opera: La Bohème
Harrison Opera House, November 8, 2015
Review by M.D. Ridge
Virginia Opera’s oft-produced La Bohème was a smash hit in its latest production that opened November 8 at the Harrison Opera House. The tragic story of the starving poet Rodolfo who falls in love with the doomed Mimi, a consumptive seamstress, was, with one exception, a masterpiece of superb singing and effective production values blended into much more than the mere sum of its parts.
Stage director Kyle Lang and conductor Adam Turner had updated it from 1830 to 1938, just prior to World War II—which made costumes and props, like Rodolfo’s portable typewriter, easier to design and acquire.
Jayson Slayden was a knockout Rodolfo—slim, good-looking and graceful. His light, clear voice lacked absolutely nothing, effortlessly spinning out passionate high notes. His acting was as natural and easy and effective as his singing. His first act arias, Che gelida manina and O soave fanciulla, were tenderly breathtaking. He was everything one could want in a Rodolfo—and so rarely get. (May we see more of him, please? Please?).
Rodolfo’s three friends—a painter, a philosopher and a musician—were excellent as well. The resonant baritone of Edward Parks brought to vibrant life the tall painter Marcello, who loves the mercurial Musetta with all her coquettish quirks. The philosopher Colline was well sung by bass-baritone Keith Brown, and baritone Andrew McLaughlin was a lively Schaunard, the musician— the only one with a job, and a little money. Their first act quartet was robustly virile, as was their easy camaraderie. And they moved as well as they sang!
Soprano Zulima López-Hernández was a zingy Musetta; her off-and-on relationship with Marcello contrasted perfectly with Rodolfo and Mimi’s all-or nothing passion. Yet her third-act generosity of spirit, giving her earrings for medicine for the dying Mimi, seemed a deep part of her character, not merely another whim. Even though López-Hernández’s intonation was not flawless, it was always perfectly in character—so not really much of a flaw.
Cuban-American soprano Elaine Alvarez was distractingly miscast as frail, consumptive Mimi, a problem exacerbated by incredibly unflattering matronly costumes. She sang well but, even in the final scene, seemed much too healthy for a deathbed, nor was her acting up to the task.
It might have made more sense for the two sopranos to have switched roles. Had she sung the flirty Musetta, the tall, burly Marcello would have been a more suitable partner for Alvarez. Meanwhile, López-Hernández would have made a more visually credible Mimi. (Blame Maria Callas for changing forever the visual expectations of operatic sopranos.)
In the first act, the ever-surprising bass Jake Gardner played Rodolfo’s slovenly landlord Benoit and, in the second act, he was the wealthy councillor Alcindoro, Musetta’s latest conquest. He nearly stole the scene—and that’s saying a lot because the Café Momus positively bustled with life and energy.
Erhard Rom’s well-thought-out, multi-level sets were terrific, from Rodolfo’s barren garret, to the lively crowd-filled street at Café Momus, to the Paris gates where laborers queued up for admittance. Elements like the shabby brick wall of the garret became part of something else in each scene, visually tying the story together.
But the Café Momus scene was the absolute best. The opera house does not have a very big stage—still, Rom’s set could handle the presence of the principals and the entire opera chorus, and the terrific Children’s Chorus, and the colorful toy vendor Parpignol, and the other café patrons and wait staff—and still allow what looked like free, easy, spontaneous movement. It was a brilliant triumph for stage director Kyle Lang, who choreographed each individual brilliantly.
Another bit that usually doesn’t get much thought is the last-act horseplay of Rodolfo, Marcello, Colline and Schaunard; at one point, the four lined up and crossed hands as if beginning the dance of the baby swans in Swan Lake—hysterically funny, but never taking the focus from the main story.
When it was announced from the stage that Virginia Symphony players would be in the pit, there was a roar of approval from the audience. Conductor Adam Turner and the orchestra made every nuance of Puccini’s familiar music polished yet fresh, full and vibrant without drowning out the singers.
This review was originally broadcast on WHRO 90.3 FM’s “From the other side of the Footlights.”
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