Lyric Opera and Joffrey Ballet join forces for a stylish, imaginative “Orphée”

September 26, 2017
9/20/17 2:02:42 PM Lyric Opera of Chicago Orphe?e et Eurydice Dress Rehearsal © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2017

Dmitry Korchak in Lyric Opera’s “Orphée et Eurydice.” Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Dance would appear to be the thing these days at Lyric Opera.

On Saturday night the company opened its season with Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice, the production marking the debut collaboration between Lyric Opera and the Joffrey Ballet.

And if the start of the opera season wasn’t big or flashy enough, the company announced on Friday that the Joffrey would become a resident company at Lyric beginning in 2020, moving from the Auditorium Theatre, its home for the past two decades.

With Joffrey running a full fall season just like Lyric Opera, one can only imagine the challenges involved in working out the logistics of competing performance schedules as well as rehearsal time, backstage facilities, etc. 

But that’s for another day. The main order of business Saturday at the Lyric Opera House–bafflingly and redundantly rechristened from the Civic Opera House over the summer–was the opening of Gluck’s opera in a new production by the Hamburg-based American choreographer John Neumeier.

Premiered in Vienna in 1762, Orfeo ed Euridice,  is one of the few post-Baroque, pre-Mozart operas to maintain a hold in the repertory. In the original fable, Orpheus is pining for his deceased wife, Eurydice, when the god Amour appears and offers to rescue her from the underworld — but only if Orpheus promises never to look upon her once she has returned. At first overjoyed at their postmortem reunion, Eurydice soon wonders why Orpheus seems so distant and avoids her gaze. After much recrimination the distraught Orpheus gives in, at which Eurydice dies again, this time for good. 

But wait. Ever the practical businessman, Gluck rewrote the tragedy’s ending to provide his Enlightenment audience with a more optimistic coda, as Amour takes pity on the lovers and brings Eurydice back to life again so the couple can presumably live happily ever after in suburban Thrace.

Gluck’s opera exists in a variety of editions; Neumeier has opted for the 1774 “Paris version”– Orphée et Eurydice–which is being heard for the first time at Lyric. In addition to translating the opera into French from Italian, Gluck humanely reassigned the title role to a tenor rather than a castrato. The Paris revision also added several dances for the Terpsichorean-obsessed French, which makes it suitable for the current balletic collaboration. (Lyric’s show also dovetails serendipitously with this fall’s early opera emphasis–primarily John Eliot Gardiner presenting all three Monteverdi operas at the Harris Theater next month.)

As director, choreographer and production designer, Neumeier adds his own glosses to the staging. This coproduction with Los Angeles Opera and Staatsoper Hamburg repositions the action to a modern-dress setting. In the exposition, which takes place during the Overture, Orpheus has transitioned into the director of a contemporary ballet company and Eurydice is his wife as well as the prima ballerina. After a quarrel between the couple, she runs out into the street, is struck by a car and killed, launching the narrative.

Neumeier’s stark, rotating set designs–realized with Heinrich Tröger–are striking and imaginative. The staging makes effective use of Arnold Böcklin’s celebrated painting, Isle of the Dead, the gloomy Stygian visual nicely contrasted with a tiny bedroom set that evokes Edward Hopper’s sunlit interiors.

There are a few missteps. While the opening scene with the full 43-member Joffrey company rehearsing in Orpheus’s studio was clearly meant to wow, it’s a bit visually overstuffed. Eurydice’s fatal accident takes place so quickly and out of the blue that a good chunk of the audience only seemed to belatedly realize what happened.

Recasting Amour as a tomboyish assistant concerned with Orpheus’s well-being was a dubious device. As costumed, Lauren Snouffer bore a remarkable resemblance to Anybodys, the Jets’ female hanger-on in the film version of West Side Story; her pantomimed shadowing of Orpheus’s moods quickly became tiresome.

Textually, Neumeier generally adheres to the Paris edition, though some of the more florid aria versions for Orpheus appear to hail from the Italian original. In synch with our postmodern age, Neumeier restores the myth’s tragic ending, which was handled touchingly, even if it goes against Gluck’s own ill-advised revisionism. Finally, even with some dances cut, the opera’s finale felt unnecessarily padded, as the extended dances delayed the denouement with one ballet sequence too many.

But for the most part, Lyric’s Orphée et Eurydice works extraordinarily well, with Neumeier’s Gesamtkunstwerk control fusing the music, dance and dramatic elements into a cohesive, fluid and effective whole.

The modern tendency is to cast Orpheus as a countertenor, as was done in Lyric’s last staging a decade ago with David Daniels taking the role. Adhering to Gluck’s Paris preference, Lyric has opted for a tenor this time, with Dmitry Korchak making his company debut.

Even with its tiny cast of three singers, Orphée is close to a one-man show for much of the evening, and Korchak impressively fulfilled the assignment both vocally and dramatically. The Russian tenor’s beefy voice and somewhat grainy timbre takes some getting used to, and at times one wished for more of the tonal elegance and fluency between registers of the classic haut-contre the role was (re)written for. 

Yet Korchak wielded his ample instrument with finesse, attacking top notes with striking accuracy. He displayed surprising dexterity in the coloratura roulades of “L’espoir renait dans mon ame” and deftly handled the challenge of finding elegiac sadness within the jaunty musical line of  “J’ai perdu mon Euridice.” The singer also showed impressive acting chops in the role of choreographer, moving among and between the ballet dancers with a professional’s assurance.

Andriana Chuchman with Joffrey Ballet dancers in "Orphée et Eurydice." Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Andriana Chuchman with Joffrey Ballet dancers in “Orphée et Eurydice.” Photo: Todd Rosenberg

 Andriana Chuchman proved ideally cast as the doomed Eurydice. In addition to making an attractive couple with Korchak’s Orphée, Chuchman sang with bright tone and agility, and was always dramatically credible, even in the repetitive “Why are you not looking at me?” inanity of Act 3. A rare operatic soprano with dance experience, Chuchman handled the simpler ballet movements assigned to her with grace, blending easily with the ballet corps.

Lauren Snouffer was an admirable Amour, handicapped somewhat by the ill-advised revision of her role. The soprano sang with worthy strength and flexibility though her words were too often indecipherable, as heard from the extreme right side of the house.

The ballet element is coequal with the singing in Orphée–if not dominant in this staging–and the Joffrey troupe appeared up to all the demands of Neumeier’s mutable choreography. Those more knowledgeable about dance than myself can weigh in on the finer technical qualities of the Joffrey performance; but from the violent gyrations of the Furies to the Apollonian grace of the Blessed Spirits, the entire Joffrey ensemble appeared to serve the score and Neumeier’s choreography with ceaseless energy and astounding precision.

A great deal of the evening’s success was due to the musical direction of Harry Bicket, who was back in more congenial repertoire after last season’s hapless Carmen. Maintaining close synchronization with the dancers as well as the singers, Bicket drew supple, stylish and idiomatic playing throughout. The Lyric Opera Orchestra, brought out all the spare, elegant grace and iridescent beauty of Gluck’s music, with an especially gorgeous rendering of the “Dance of the Blessed Spirits.”

The Lyric Opera Chorus is entirely offstage in this production, but under the direction of Michael Black, made their presence felt with refined and characterful vocalism in their various guises, both hellish and heavenly.

Orphée et Eurydice runs through October 15.

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