Chicago Opera Review: ORPHÉE ET EURYDICE (Lyric)

by Barnaby Hughes on October 2, 2017

in Theater-Chicago

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ON AND ORPH

The promising 2017-2018 season-opening production of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice, featuring a welcome collaboration with Chicago’s own Joffrey Ballet, simply does not live up to the hype, hope, and expectation it has generated since being announced earlier this year. Gluck’s 1774 French version of his earlier 1762 Italian opera is not the problem, nor is the outstanding cast led by Dmitry Korchak, Lauren Snouffer, and Andriana Chuchman. Every disappointing thing about this production stems from John Neumeier’s all-encompassing vision as director, choreographer, set designer, costume designer, and lighting designer. Such total control could potentially result in an astoundingly unified and original production; instead it is uniformly flawed and rather incoherent.

Based on the Greek myth of the same name, Gluck’s Orphée tells the tale of the famous musician and poet who descends to the underworld and charms the furies in order to regain his wife Eurydice from the grave. Its three acts arc from death to life in this world and through the realms of Hades and the Elysian Fields. Besides the titular characters, librettist Pierre-Louis Moline names only one other: Amour, or Cupid, whose suggestion propels Orphée to seek Eurydice among the dead, with the sole condition that he not look at her.

Neumeier ruins this timeless tale by setting it in the present day. Gluck’s exuberant overture is accompanied onstage by a ballet rehearsal. The director Orphée quarrels with his ballerina wife who has arrived late. Eurydice leaves in a fury and fatally crashes her Mini Cooper into a tree. Gluck’s opera, by contrast, is silent on the details of Eurydice’s death. Neumeier’s inventions here and elsewhere, however, serve to obscure rather than illuminate the original story. Most problematic is how Orphée calms the furies and gains access to his beloved if he is not a musician. For nowhere is it alternatively suggested that Orphée charms them with his choreography, though he might thus win over Lyric audiences. The myth, it seems, has lost its magic.

As a whole, Neumeier’s production falls flat, despite the beauty of the music and dance. His mostly monochrome sets and costumes tend to the abstract and fail to transport audiences to the horrors of Hades or to the euphoria of the Elysian Fields. Of the dancer’s costumes, those of the furies are the most interesting and effective. The women’s are generally elegant enough, but the men’s tend to be unflattering. Eurydice wears a number of flattering dresses, but why she often appears shrouded in a (wedding?) veil is a mystery, especially after her return from the dead. Amour might be a female trouser role, but that’s no reason to clothe her like a young punk or tramp in a hoodie and jacket. Neumeier gives us no sense of Amour’s loveliness.

Another oddity of Neumeier’s design is the fragmentariness of the sets. Much of the movement, especially in Act Two, is achieved through rotating, interchangeable configurations of walls, doors, and windows; but what does it mean? And why does the titular couple’s bedroom resemble that of a child’s with its narrow twin bed? Early on in Act I, Amour shows Orphée a picture of a mysterious landscape, which looks similar to the rotating set of last season’s Les Troyens. Alas, such a set does not appear; instead, a larger version of the painting is used as a backdrop.

The best part and most enjoyable part of this production, besides Gluck’s superb score, is the cast. Renowned Russian tenor Dmitry Korchak makes his Lyric debut as Orphée. He has a fittingly fluent and fantastic voice for the role of the fabled hero, singing with svelte soulfulness and sincerity. His interpretation remained at all times measured and melodious, even during the celebrated cadenza at the first act climax. Opposite him, Ryan Opera Center alumna Andriana Chuchman played the part of Eurydice with grace and beauty, her voice blending sweetly with Korchak’s in the delicious duets of Act III. Although Chuchman and Snouffer are by no means unknown to Lyric audiences, it is to be hoped that they will return more often and in greater roles.

Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice would not have been possible without the Joffrey Ballet, which features as prominently on stage as the singers. The interplay of song and dance makes this a delightfully diversified entertainment, as does the alternation of soloists and chorus, though the latter remains hidden in the pit throughout. Their hymn-like singing combined with Gluck’s rich harmonies gives the opera a sacred aura, which meshes well with the divine talent of the titular hero and his journey to the heavenly realm.

John Neumeier’s vision for this production detracts from that of the composer and his librettist, but it does not prevent audiences from enjoying this delightful French opera, one that pre-dates the usual Lyric fare. Although Orphée et Eurydice is a timeless tale, it should not get the modern treatment without good reason, and the presence of the Joffrey Ballet is not it.

photos by Todd Rosenberg and Andrew Cioffi

Orphée et Eurydice
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive
ends on October 15, 2017
for tickets, call 312.827.5600 or visit Lyric Opera

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Susana Roller October 16, 2017 at 3:05 pm

I was so disappointed with the production of Orphée et Eurydice. The stage was poorly decorated. I felt I was never engaged into the performance and couldn’t wait for it to be over. At times I felt like walking out of the theater. My three girlfriends and I had planned the event several months in advance; we even had lunch reservations at The Sarah and Peer Pedersen Room. We were all saddened that our girls’ day out was not what we hoped for.

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