Monday, January 13, 2014

An Infernal Happy Ending

La descente d’Orphée aux enfers
By Marc-Antoine Charpentier
Gotham Chamber Opera - St. Paul’s Chapel, January 5, 2014

Photo credit: Richard Termine
Every opera has a musical passage, an aria or a duet that gives it its raison d’être: a focal point for the feeling a composer desires to evoke with the piece. In the case of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s La descente d’Orphée aux enfers, the crux of emotions is found in Orpheus’ plea for Pluto’s mercy. In his attempt to persuade the god of the underworld, Orpheus appeals paradoxically to Pluto’s humanity, his ability to empathize with his plight. Charpentier’s Orpheus is both master rhetorician and singer, and tenor Daniel Curran, who sung this part in Gotham Chamber Opera’s recent production, endowed his embodiment of the lovelorn poet with many moments of gut-wrenching beauty, especially when his voice reached up into the higher range. Considering the beauty of the music Charpentier gives Orpheus to sing, it is clear how he might be able to penetrate Pluto’s “cœur impénétrable.” 

Photo credit: Richard Termine

One thing that baroque opera does particularly well is the lament. And the plaintive beauty of Orpheus’ petition to Pluto, which Curran sang with a level of refinement and style that seemed to temporarily stop time, achieved several moments of this particular baroque vocal artistry. Another element of this genre that keeps me coming back are the choral ensemble pieces. This is always where I tend to feel the debt of opera to Ancient Greek theater. Charpentier composed a series of ensemble pieces for his chorus of young men and maidens in the first act, penitent souls and harpies in the second, which provided the backbone for the whole opera. Against this multilayered vocal texture, Orpheus, the heart and soul of the piece, is really the only vocal part that comes to the fore.

Photo credit: Richard Termine
The approach to sets and costumes was on the minimalist side, especially when compared to the recent pyrotechnics of Gotham’s spectacular Baden-Baden 1927, which in many respects was on a whole other level. Here poor male chorus members had to sport very un-manly costumes (pastel colored shirts and berets, poison ivy belts) in Act I, though the ladies had better luck with flowing gowns and scarves that achieved lovely effects with the simple yet effective choreographies.

Photo credit: Richard Termine
I enjoyed the irony of staging a descent to the underworld in a church, with the bonus special hellish effects of the ground trembling under the audience’s feet, courtesy of the NYC subway. The subway’s low shuttering rumble seemed perfectly timed with the narrative on at least two occasions as the story unfolded. Gotham’s set choices were simple, yet made great use of the space. The addition of a white spiral staircase to connect the stage to the church’s balcony created two dynamic levels of action – most effective when divinities “up above” were involved, Apollo in Act I and the Pluto-Proserpina couple in Act II. The series of translucent white canvases around the stage served as screens for computer-animated graphic projections that started as airy clouds when things are all bucolic and happy, then transitioned to very Inferno-like underground roots that seems to pump with blood like veins when the action moves to the underworld. The canvases also served as space dividers between the singers and the musical ensemble, which was rather unusually hidden away behind the stage and only visible to the public as a group of silhouettes.

Photo credit: Richard Termine
Act II was more successful, both visually and vocally. The Dantesque projections and gruesome damned souls were a great contrast to the almost psychedelic joyful tones of Act I. In the underworld the breezy light voices of virtually the whole cast were overshadowed by the power of Pluto, who brought some manly thunder to the otherwise gracious singing. Bass Jeffrey Beruan’s Pluto was sensational. His deep, dark, rich voice filled the space effortlessly, and towered over everybody else. As king of the underworld, Beruan's characterization ranged from intransigent authority figure to hopeless romantic when he finally concedes to Orpheus’ plea.

Whether or not there were other acts that went missing, it is striking that what remains of Charpentier’s two act cantata is a positive take on the myth that conveniently disregards the tragic end of the story. We are left with an optimistic belief in the viability of resurrection. And religious imagery is, in fact, present elsewhere as well. In Charpentier’s version, Eurydice is dancing in the garden with her cohort of young maidens on the eve of her wedding to Orpheus when she stumbles on a snake that leads to her fall.

Marc Tansey, Still Life, 1982
 Unlike the standard tragic denouement that is conspicuously missing from Charpentier’s optimistic truncation, this version of the myth of Orpheus holds true on the promise that art is able to betray death, that through artistic expression one is able to achieve immortality. In line with the promotional poster for the Gotham production, though nature inevitably fades and a bouquet of flowers eventually wilts away, its representation in the artist’s painted still life will live on forever. So Charpentier’s Orpheus and Eurydice live happily ever after.

Photo credit: Richard Termine
Gotham’s treatment of the ending does not let the couple off so easy. During the concluding musical interlude, as the reunited lovers ascend the spiral staircase together, Orpheus gives us a glimpse of his fateful lack of self control: he looks back too soon to lay eyes on his irresistible love. And this is the fleeting freeze frame this production engrains on our mind’s eye at the last moment before the house lights suddenly and dramatically cut to black, though the libretto and the score only ever get so far as depicting in music and in words the joyous reunion of the young couple. There is an insistence on presenting the conclusion of the tragic story, thus giving us closure, but at the same time undermining the message of the promotional poster: namely, that art saves. Instead, we are reminded of the fact that the artist is also just as capable of irremediably losing that which he regains.

With all this hype around Gotham Chamber Opera right now with everyone waiting for the company to fill the vacuum left by New York City Opera, this production serves as a reminder of their actual caliber. As ever, musically they are truly remarkable and consistently worth following, with a variety of talented young voices always vital and fresh. But their productions are not always at a level one comes to expect from the major leagues. The beauty often lies in the inventiveness they always manage to muster with their many ad hoc venues. They’re still a young company that shows heaps of promise but still has room to grow and we’re eager to track their growth.

- Lui & Lei

Michel Martin DrollingOrpheus and Eurydice, 1820

1 comment:

  1. Further thoughts on the myth of Orpheus with a little help from our friends Maurice Blanchot and Richard Skinner: