By Patrick O’Brien
It is a truth only till recently acknowledged that each individual aspect of stagecraft should be relevant to the experience as a whole. Rodgers and Hammerstein had their integrated song and dance to story in 1943; Chekhov grabbed his gun as early as 1889; Wagner had his theories of “all-embracing art” or some such gesamtkunstwerk by 1849. There were other before them, several more after and many more yet to come.
Before them: composer Christoph Willibald Gluck, who wasn’t overly fond of opera contorting itself to hit emotional beats that “needed” hitting, or to grind moralistic axes that “needed” grinding. Hence, his duly named “reform operas,” which sought to yoke together music, words, and dance to explore human passions naturally. His most lasting effort on this front: Orphée et Eurydice — from the classic myth of tragic parting and Underworld daring — dating back as early as 1762.
Now, and yet to come: Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet has not only joined forces with Lyric Opera on an original production of Orphée et Eurydice; they’ve also recently announced a residency program at the Civic Opera House starting in 2020. Words, music and dance must share the Civic stage anew.
How is each individual part in this inaugural venture?
As words? The core myth is still as rending as ever. As music? Glory to the ears. As dance? Appropriately supple and longing.
As a whole, though? It remains prototypical.
For all their theory, Gluck and librettist Raniere de’ Calzabigi were not iconoclasts, alas. Lyric has technically mounted the 1774 revision the pair made for its Paris premiere. Among other changes, they added ballets because French audiences craved ballets; they made for a nice diversion from all that singing. So they weren’t wholly immune to the call to bend their work to local tastes. Nor were they immune to flights of fancy, however much they strove for properly grounded passion. The opera nominally ends with Eurydice re-resurrected, which, at the very least, constitutes a major change from the original myth.
Therefore, it would take a strong hand to push the opera from “musicological point of interest” to “stellar.” Multihyphenate John Neumeier seems like just the person — he directed, choreographed and designed the whole shebang.
His dramatic choices are sound. For one, staging the opera in modern dress and changing Orpheus and Eurydice into a ballet director and his prima ballerina is a fitting transposition of their artist/muse relationship, and it certainly makes good use of the Joffrey ensemble. For another, keying this story as a metaphorical journey to the Underworld — as an allegory for grief — is a valid interpretation. (Here, Eurydice’s spirit lives on in the Orpheus’s new ballet.) For a third, he creates and maintains an intimate environment for its two main characters, which is difficult with an omnipresent moving ensemble.
And such characters: Dmitry Korchak and Andriana Chuchman as the tragic lovers swoon and spat with each other credibly and sing with, indeed, a grounded passion. Gluck’s score is rich and enchanting and complements the libretto.
And the ballet moves with intense longing, largely in couples — that state of union which Orpheus can only dream.
However, for all Neumeier’s achievements in each individual aspect, they still remain individual, perhaps best taken on their own merits. Far be it for the (offstage) singing chorus to lace up their dancing shoes or the ballet to take voice lessons; such triple-threat performers were, and to a degree remain, a rarity. Even so, Orphée et Eurydice is still an evening heady with love, loss and promise. Promise not only of creating life, life, life out of despair, but of how this marriage of two institutions may make a happy whole.
Lyric Opera of Chicago presents ‘Orphee et Eurydice’ through October 15 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N Upper Wacker Drive, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Todd Rosenberg Photography.