With its glorious melodies , menacing harmonies, and inclusion of music for dances that actually drive the plot rather than functioning as interludes giving singers a chance to catch their breath, Christoph Willibald Gluck’s 1762 opera Orfeo ed Eurydice has inspired some extremely distinguished 20th and 21st century choreographers. George Balanchine did a radical version for the Metropolitan Opera in 1936, in a conceptual collaboration with painter Pavel Tchelitchew, that put the singers in the pit and the dancers in the air. Forty years later, having choreographed to Gluck’s music several times in between, Balanchine made the beautiful Chaconne as a vehicle for Suzanne Farrell and Peter Martins. In 1953 Sir Frederick Ashton choreographed it for Covent Garden. Mark Morris staged it first in 1986 for the Handel and Haydn Society, and in 2007 directed and choreographed a modern-dress production for the Met, with the chorus dressed as characters from history placed on a platform above the stage, commenting, so to speak, on the action taking place below them.
Because of this history, and my own longtime affection for Gluck’s score (I’ve been listening to this gorgeous music since I was fifteen), I was delighted to learn that the Portland Opera was performing this version of the Orpheus story for the first time (they did Philip Glass’s in 2009), and at the Newmark Theater at that, vastly preferable to the all too spacious Keller Auditorium. The knowledge that Oregon Ballet Theatre principal dancer Peter Franc and OBT soloist Katherine Monogue, lovely dancers both of them, would perform added to the attraction.
The singing was lovely on Tuesday night. The orchestra, led by Portland Opera Conductor and Chorus Master Nicholas Fox, was the same; and the sets and costumes , designed by Jacob A. Climer for the Des Moines Opera, were both interesting and beautiful (with the exception of Amor’s headdress, which bears an unfortunate resemblance to Mickey Mouse ears, and furry ones at that). But I found Jillian Foley’s choreography — ranging from writhing modern dance for the Furies in Act One to boilerplate court dance for the “blessed spirits” in Act II’s second scene, which takes place in the Elysian Fields — uninspired at best. Foley, who made these dances for the Des Moines Opera and restaged them for Portland, also danced, partnered by Micah Chermak of PDX Contemporary Ballet. There was one magnificent Pina Bausch moment in the third act, when Euridice rises from her rose-covered grave in a shower of rose petals, but I don’t know whether Foley or stage director Chas Rader-Shieber was responsible for that. Bausch never did a Gluck Orfeo, but she did do Monteverdi’s, as did postmodern choreographer Trisha Brown.
I understand that, like every major arts institution in the city, Portland Opera has financial challenges, and shared productions such as this one make good financial sense. June’s Faust, too, which was a collaborative production with the Chicago Lyric Opera, is a feather in the cap for both cities, aesthetically at least. Having said that, Portland Opera has a history of working with Portland choreographers and dancers, most notably Jamey Hampton and Ashley Roland, who did a Carmina Burana in 2002 that toured all over the country and has been revived here a number of times. They also did a Cunning Little Vixen; and the late Dennis Spaight, associate artistic director and resident choreographer at Oregon Ballet Theatre, did a magnificently outré orgy for a production of Samson and Delilah, back in the last century. I would love to have seen what Hampton and Roland would have done with this opera.
But if this Orfeo ed Eurydice is visually uneven and choreographically dull, musically it’s magnificent, particularly Sandra Piques Eddy as Orfeo, whose body is as eloquent as her voice. As Eurydice, Lindsay Ohse sent shivers down my spine as she shook off the rose petals and sang of her love; and Helen Huang, as Amore, overcame the distraction of her headdress while singing one of opera’s loveliest arias in Act One. There are two more performances, at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Saturday, August 2 and 4. By all means go, and I’ll quote Balanchine here: “If you don’t like the dancing, close your eyes and listen to the music.” And weep. I did.