Aside from Claudio Monteverdi’s operas, Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, which premiered in Vienna in 1762, is the earliest opera in regular repertory.
Its abundance of graceful melody, compelling story and absence of the stiffness of the prevailing opera seria put it there, and not incidentally so did its use of orchestral accompaniment in the recitatives rather than just continuo.
And that has made the opera a popular one for companies such as Florida Grand Opera that want to add some more Baroque works to their repertory. This is the first Orfeo in FGO’s 77-season history; its only other Baroque efforts were two productions of Handel’s Giulio Cesare in 2000 and 2008, and a 1997 mounting of Monteverdi’s Poppea.
For its production of Orfeo, which opened Saturday night at the Ziff Ballet Opera House in Miami and closes March 29 and 31 with two performances in Fort Lauderdale, FGO has used a production from the Seattle Opera, chosen a sensitive and thoughtful stage director in Keturah Stickann, and brought in three fine singers for its leading roles.
Orfeo is sung by the celebrated countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, whom area operagoers might have seen in this role at Palm Beach Opera in 2011, when he sang it opposite Nadine Sierra (who has gone on to really big things at major houses such as the Metropolitan Opera, where she sings Gilda next year in Verdi’s Rigoletto).
Then as now, Costanzo sang with purity and beauty, investing the role with genuine sadness, particularly in “Che faro senza Euridice,” when he sang the last verse in an increasingly hushed, faltering way until he collapsed beside the body of his wife.
Euridice was sung by Jessica E. Jones, a soprano from Idaho in the company’s Studio Artists’ troupe who is at the beginning of her career, with recent performances in Rossini for Sarasota Opera and Mason Bates’s Steve Jobs drama at Santa Fe Opera. Jones has a lightly colored, forceful soprano voice that is well-trained, agile and a pleasure to listen to. She hits all her interpretive marks with care and intelligence, and had this been a production that favored some improvisatory vocal display, one gets the impression that she would do something tasteful and elegant.
She is, not incidentally for a role in which she plays a beloved wife for whom a husband braves the Underworld, also a lovely woman, with lustrous red hair and a big smile that makes the happiness she and Orfeo capture at the end sincere and believable. This is an excellent role for Jones, who is a good actress, and it could be the one she looks back on years from now as the one that gave her career its most important launching pad.
Evan Kardon, another soprano in the Studio Artists company, was a very good Amor, decked out in vintage-store punk chaos with thigh-high gold-plated boots, fishnets, a dog collar and a pink dress from a 1980s senior prom underneath a short-cropped head of hair dyed an unnatural red. While her getup was fun, I don’t know that it added much to the character; but fortunately, Kardon is a fine singer, with a voice similar to Jones’s in its pretty color and considerable strength.
The Philadelphia native was fully at home in this repertoire, and she handled this small role admirably well. What was perhaps missing was a stronger sense of engagement with the character her costume suggests: that’s the dress of a spunkier person than the one Kardon gave us.
The chorus, well-drilled as ever by Katherine Kozak, was very fine, but somewhat too light on male weight, especially in the Furies scene (and surely those repeated No’s were in Mozart’s head when he came to write the finale of Don Giovanni). But they sang with the same careful respect for the music that dominated this whole production.
The orchestra, led with precision by Anthony Barrese, was surprisingly weak in the first half, with intonation problems plaguing what was otherwise a deft reading of this score. They were much better in the second half, which suggests the first half can be chalked up to opening-night kinks in the hose. Barrese was very good at the moments of highest emotional impact, making sure that all the sonic elements were in line to make that point (the second death of Euridice being the best example), but his tempos were often on the slow side, and lacking in energy.
This production also had the services of eight dancers from the new Dimensions Dance Theatre of Miami (founded by two Miami City Ballet alums), who were excellent. This Orfeo opens in the middle of the overture with a festive dance in Elysium, during which Euridice is suddenly struck dead while on a green hill gathering flowers. Stickann’s choreography was charming, as was her idea for a mini-ballet in Act III, when Orfeo and Euridice, now safely together again, revive the dancers as they each reenact Orfeo’s fatal glance, and fall to the stage floor.
It’s a pity they didn’t have more to do; the “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” was, unforgivably, cut in half, leaving out the best part: the D minor second section with its justly famous flute solo. It would have been well worth seeing more from the dancers moving to one of the loveliest moments in the score.
Phillip Lienau’s stark set is dominated by a giant tree, whose roots are seen behind Orfeo and Euridice when in Hades, and the lighting by Lucas Krech mirrors the drama by casting everything in chiaroscuro during Euridice’s first death. Heidi Zamora’s costumes range widely from Orfeo’s middle manager outfit to Euridice’s ancient Greek-style dress, and added another level of visual interest.
In recent years, opera directors have mined even the most non-contemporary stories to resonate with an audience raised on filmed melodramas, be they movies or multi-part bingefests on Netflix. This is the case here, too, with an Orfeo that uses modern clothing and strips down the story to its most powerful element: The loss of the greatest love in your life, taken away suddenly while in the midst of your happiness.
There’s no doubt that the way Stickann staged it, the singers performed it and the orchestra and dancers supported it, that this Orfeo was effective and moving, and the modest opening-night crowd Saturday was effusive in its praise at the curtain. But overall, I’d argue that it didn’t work, and that’s primarily because Gluck’s score, while melodious and agreeable, has little if any inherent drama. It serves the action, but it has almost no action itself; it would take the example of Mozart (whose father, Leopold, was in the audience for one of Orfeo’s first performances in 1762) a few years later to show how fundamentally dramatic music could lift an opera to much greater heights.
What’s needed, therefore, is not a conception of the opera that strips it to the level of a psychological crisis, because the music can’t support it. For all of its importance as an exemplar of theatrical simplicity, Orfeo works best when it is presented in florid Baroque style: Ballet, elaborate costumes, fantastical realms underneath the earth filled with menace, a paradise of unimaginable beauty and peace. This Orfeo, on the other hand, is at times more like an extended Sunday morning Big Pharma commercial, with happy residents of Elysium dressed in Defending Your Life-style tunics (in pastel shades), quiet music moving at placid tempi, and an overall feeling of supportive good will.
It’s worth seeing for the singers – Costanzo and Jones in particular – and the dancers, and you will find yourself drawn in to the focal moment of the show. But it may also be that you’ll find yourself feeling that something big was missing.
Orfeo ed Euridice can be seen March 23 and 24 at the Ziff Ballet Opera House; it also plays March 29 and 31 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale. On March 23, the role of Orfeo is sung by mezzo-soprano Lindsay Ammann. For more information or tickets, call 800-741-1010 or visit www.fgo.org.