"Orpheus" runs through March 10 at Seattle Opera.
Unlike many productions, this visually striking “Orpheus and Eurydice,” by Jose Maria Condemi, bringing Gluck’s masterpiece back to Seattle Opera after a 24-year absence, was created entirely by the Seattle company.
Phillip Lienau’s sets, dominated in the first and third acts by majestic yet curiously threatening trees, created an aptly awe-inspiring atmosphere. Within this framework, the chorus, seen in silhouette, made a stunning picture enhanced by Connie Yun’s restrained lighting.
The scene in Hades was even more thrilling to look at. Heidi Zamora had costumed the Furies in outfits that veiled their heads, and their brilliantly dramatic contortions counterpointed the compelling work of a small dance group choreographed by Yannis Adoniou. Less effective was the following scene in the Elysian fields: I thought it was a mistake to break an essentially ensemble action down into too-personal duets.
Here, also, the melodic grace of Orpheus’s aria “Quel nouveau ciel” made curiously little effect.
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Indeed, while it was a pleasure to be allowed to listen to the overture, vibrantly conducted by Gary Thor Wedow, without the distraction of invented stage business, there were moments throughout the evening when the orchestral sound (Demarre McGill’s and Valerie Muzzolini Gordon’s beautiful flute and harp solos excepted) was too muddy to allow Gluck’s writing its proper degree of luminous transparency. And though the paradox of that immortal aria, “J’ai perdu mon Eurydice,” is that it expresses the deepest despair through the usually serene major mode, I don’t think its short orchestral introduction needed to be phrased with quite such inspiriting jauntiness.
The contribution of Beth Kirchhoff’s chorus was up to its usual high standard, and much of the solo singing was also excellent. Davinia Rodrìguez made a dramatically convincing and vocally resplendent Eurydice, and former Seattle Opera Young Artist Julianne Gearhart’s Amour — providing a touch of light relief by coming on stage by bicycle — played and sang her part with charming conviction.
Now I come to the difficult bit. You will have noticed that I have said nothing yet about William Burden’s performance in the key role of Orpheus. This is a stalwart American tenor, whom I admire enormously, and who has provided superb accounts here in recent years of a wide variety of roles. This time, his acting was as committed and convincing as it always is. But I thought he was in — for him — poor voice, the tone strained and tight almost all evening. I should be very surprised if he did not sing much better in the rest of the run (and I hope to go back and find out).
Zamora had seemingly run out of ideas by the time she came to costume the concluding grand choral celebration of the triumph of love. (The opera was given without the eminently dispensable final balletic divertissement.) It made an appropriate ending for a production that, sensible though it was, lacked the magic Roberto de Simone brought to “Orfeo” at La Scala, Milan, back in 1989.
Bernard Jacobson: email@example.com