By Greg Stepanich
You have to give Palm Beach Opera credit for knowing how to fall back on basic theatrical precepts when faced with having to present fewer mainstage productions than it wants to.
Actually, it’s hard to tell that this is a company that has cut one full production, so varied and diverse have been the shows offered in its stead. This month, instead of a mainstage presentation, we’ve actually gotten three shows to replace it: A workshop production of Handel’s Ariodante, a star-power Verdi Requiem, and Friday night, the first of two semi-staged performances of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice.
This last was perhaps the most unusual of all, an intermission-less run of the work that was as much a dance show as it was a piece of musical theater. Imaginatively staged by Doug Varone, who made constant use of six dancers from his New York-based company, and sung with verve and innovation by young, fresh singers, this was an Orfeo of restless beauty, pretty to look at and listen to, and testimony to the ability of a fine work of art to attract an audience if its presenters and performers have enough faith in it.
With the Palm Beach Opera Orchestra and chorus on stage, Varone used the apron in front of them on the Dreyfoos Hall stage at the Kravis Center for his dancers, lithe creatures all, in white long-sleeve shirts and pants who split into three couples, and sometimes two groups of three, as they made physical commentary on the action. This they did by framing the singers in simple tableaux, or underlining the action by falling, Swan Lake-like, into multiple pas de deux postures of grief.
Singing Orfeo in the all-American cast was countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, a slight man with a large voice who first became known to area audiences two years ago with a Handel aria (Stille amare, from Tolomeo) that won the North Carolinian a second-place nod at the Palm Beach Opera Grand Finals. Costanzo sang quite well throughout Friday night’s performance, with the best moment coming in his anguished interpretation of Che farò senza Euridice? This was a very dramatic, almost Romantic reading of this celebrated aria, in which the tempo steadily slowed as the music progressed, with the last repetition of the main melody the slowest of all as Costanzo struggled to stand, weighed down by the enormity of the second loss of his beloved wife.
It was very effective and most memorable, if quite unconventional. Singing Euridice to Costanzo’s Orfeo was the Fort Lauderdale-born soprano Nadine Sierra, now just barely out of her teens and long admired locally for her precocious vocal skills. She has a more mature edge to her basic sound these days, and it’s a strong, attractive voice, quite capable of carrying the burden of this particular role and of handling the early Classical style. Her acting, even in this semi-concert format, was persuasive; she looked crushed by Orfeo’s repeated refusal to look at her, and she beamed like a new bride when she was finally restored to him.
Both singers were clad in ordinary contemporary dress, with Costanzo in a purple shirt, light brown vest and pants, and Sierra in a long, low-cut blue dress. The same went for Amor, sung by the California-born mezzo Irene Roberts, who wore a relatively short white dress and platform corks. Roberts sang her brief role with conviction and skill, revealing the same darkly hued, forceful voice audiences heard in her Mercédès in last season’s Carmen and in a Meyerbeer aria in last year’s Grand Finals. One hopes we’ll continue to see this former Young Artist return regularly.
Varone’s staging extended also to the chorus, and dress-wise to the orchestra, which wore all black. The chorus stood on risers at the back of the orchestra and added smart moments of gestural ballet to the music: Singing at the beginning in sorrow over Orfeo’s loss, members of the chorus put their hands on each other’s shoulders or held their hands over their hearts. For the final rejoicing chorus, arms shot up in victory in a well-choreographed moment that added visual interest to the general air of celebration. They also sang admirably well, with fire as they questioned who dared to enter Hades, and warmth as they shared Orfeo’s sadness.
Conductor Bruno Aprea showed his mastery of accompaniment, carefully following and directing his singers from behind them instead of being able to see them from the pit. His tempos tended to be fast, which worked perfectly well, and in general had the same kind of drive that distinguishes his readings of the early Romantic Italian repertoire he has recently conducted.
The orchestra itself had difficulty finding its aural footing in the first half or so of the opera, with anemic intonation (low brass especially) and less-than-crisp ensemble. By the final ballet, it was an orchestra that had spiffed up noticeably, with a much tighter, better-organized sound as the group seemed to settle into the relative sparseness of Gluck’s orchestral style, so different from the blazing colors of late Verdi that the orchestra tackled last Sunday.
Overall, Varone’s clever, well-thought-out use of the Kravis stage and his performers, aided by Erin Stearns Amico’s sensible costuming and Paul Hackenmueller’s effective lighting, gave this production a unity that was visually engaging without being fussy. It left plenty of room for the fine young singers and excellent young dancers to integrate themselves into the action, which is no more or less than a realization of the reforms that Gluck and librettist Ranieri de Calzabigi had in mind.
Indeed, it’s hard to see how a production with this kind of built-in limitation could have been any better at not being limited at all, and in its coherence and resourcefulness, it’s possible to see it as a model of its kind for other companies looking to make the best opera they can in straitened times.
Orfeo ed Euridice will be performed again at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Kravis Center, West Palm Beach. Tickets range from $20-$100. Call 833-7888 or visit www.pbopera.org.