Monday, March 19, 2018

Love, death and remembrance: John Neumeier's conceptually powerful and touching Orpheus and Eurydice at LA Opera

Maxim Mironov as Orpheo, Act 1, Orpheus and Eurydice
Had Christoph Willibald Gluck not revised his original Italian version of Orfeo ed Euridice for its Vienna premiere in 1762 for its French version twelve years later to suit Parisian tastes, as Orphée et Eurydice, there would be little need for opera companies to collaborate so closely as they do, and so impressively as they have done as LA Opera have with acclaimed Chicago-based Joffrey Ballet’s current production on stage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Sung marvellously in French under its English title Orpheus and Eurydice, the result is a melt-your-senses joy as part of a new co-production of LA Opera with the Lyric Opera of Chicago and Staatsoper Hamburg.

In the French version, on top of its straightforward story requiring just three soloists and chorus, Gluck’s gloriously elegant and emotive music is given generous breathing space that ballet can freely take advantage of. That’s exactly what director, choreographer and all-encompassing designer John Neumeier has done, Hamburg Ballet's esteemed director and choreographer since 1973. Neumeier does so inventively and wields his influence confidently, imbuing the work with moving and mesmerising theatrical form to elucidate the complexities of love, the grief and eventual acceptance of death and - in a stroke of genius by altering Gluck’s happier ending - how life is honoured after. Admittedly, turning Gluck’s happier ending upside down could not have worked better considering its contemporary based concept that references an industry Neumeier knows the ins and outs of.

Lisette Oropesa and Maxim Mironov
The enchanting musician and poet Orpheus, choreographer in this case, mourns the death of his wife Eurydice and, with Amour’s invitation, passes into the Underworld to bring her back. There are conditions. Orpheus is not to look at her until they are back on earth. With Orpheus’s trial, Eurydice’s anguish over his indifference and taste of Elysium’s calmness, a breakdown of resolve and a fateful glance back that commits Eurydice there forever, Neumeier puts exciting spin on the story and wastes no time in establishing the background that defines it. Most importantly, his Underworld makes perfect sense as a darkened psychological state in which the subconscious deals with grief.

In the few minutes during which the overture is played, we meet Orpheus, at work in rehearsal with his dancers. His wife, also a dancer, is late. Not in any mood to take chastisement, an argument ensues, she slaps his face and storms back out. At overture’s end, a pause. The screech of tyres. A car appears and Eurydice rolls out dead. And then, the phone call. The repercussions of Neumeier’s opening burst unfold in scene after scene of poignant drama incorporating spellbinding dance. From the pliable warm ups and practice in the rehearsal room to the aggressiveness of the Furies, the grace of the Blessed Spirit Couples of Elysium and back in reality in full costume for the rehearsed ballet, the agility and beauty on display from more than 40 dancers not only excitingly move the action forward but provide meditative comfort.

At the core, however, is Russian tenor Maxim Mironov’s utterly touching performance as Orpheus. Mironov’s superb consoling warmth of tone alone almost seems just about powerful enough to relinquish Orpheus from his own sorrow. Mironov's sensitive use of text, delivered with the most mellow vibrato and perfectly placed resonance, is a stealer of attentions. Only due to the amount of danced drama on orchestral linkage does Mironov get respite from the vocal load Orpheus carries. His interpretation, in smart casual fitting attire with scarf that becomes his neck’s spurned friend, is tireless, sympathetic and commanding, all the way to the opera’s Act 3 mournful and most famous aria, J’ai perdu mon Eurydice" ("I have lost my Euridice"). In it, Orpheus  sings of the pain that becomes too much, having lost Eurydice a second time, and resorts to take his life. In a role that has bounced from castrato to haute-contre, mezzo-soprano and even baritone, Mironov has signed the role wonderfully with admirable masculine modernity.

Maxim Mironov and dancers from the Joffrey Ballet
His Eurydice is appropriately feisty, questioning and a convincing match in the competent embrace of soprano Lisette Oropesa. The pearlescent finesse and expressive intent of Eurydice’s thoughts and words drawn in voice, to both find comfort in and counter Orpheus’s presence, become a vital and compelling force, highlighted in duet with Mironov with marvellously complimentary singing and acting. And depicting Love with no airs and graces in tomboyish style, young soprano Liv Redpath gives luscious, melodic and firm support as Amour.

Down in a slightly raised pit, conductor James Conlon drove an excellently crafted and moderately paced score that oozed with sincerity and braced the stage kindly. Sharing his domain, the LA Opera Chorus do fine work with their sonorous requiem-like music ringing in thrilling tandem with the ballet.

Visually, Neumeier’s inspiration takes its cue from Arnold Böcklin’s 19th century Symbolist painting, “Isle of the Dead” (“Die Toteninsel“), a work that has been interpreted as a depiction of the painting’s oarsman as representing the boatman Charon who transported souls to the Underworld in Greek mythology. With it, a wealth of potent theatricality is infused alongside a modernist series of sectional-cubed modules that are manoeuvred in various ways to include and frame the action. The contrasts and blending tuck together and enthral the eye as harmoniously as the sound caresses the ears. In all, its the kind of experience you seem to feel completely at one with your seat.

Orpheus and Eurydice 
LA Opera
Dorothy Chandler Pavillion, LA Music Centre
Until 25th March, 2018

Production Photos: Ken Howard

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