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Other worlds beyond Earth: Seattle Opera’s ‘Orpheus’

A stunning staging with top-notch design and choreography brings Gluck's 1762 music into a thoroughly contemporary Underworld.

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Since the 1600s, countless Orpheus and Eurydice operas have been staged. Today, several have been making the rounds, including Matthew Aucoin’s (with playwright Sarah Ruhl’s libretto) Eurydice, written from Eurydice’s point of view. Juilliard students are performing Luigi Rossi’s 1641 Orfeo, though January shows have been postponed. After all, the main character, Orpheus, is a demi-god of music, and in opera, one sings.

Seattle Opera, not to be left out of the ongoing Orpheus love affair, has made a chamber opera of the myth and music, presenting it in its intimate 200-seat Tagney Jones Hall next to MacCaw Hall in Seattle. This 75-minute Orpheus and Eurydice, composed by Christophe Willibald Gluck and premiered in Vienna in 1762, has sold out for its two-week run Jan. 12-29. A few tickets have become available at https://www.seattleopera.org/on-stage/orpheus-eurydice-2022/.

Seattle Opera's production of 'Orpheus and Eurydice.' Photo by Philip Newton.
Seattle Opera’s production of ‘Orpheus and Eurydice.’ Photo by Philip Newton.

Gluck would not have recognized the production, other than the music. The piece is stunningly staged with S. Katy Tucker’s video and projection designs, Robert J. Aguilar’s dramatic lighting, Carey Wong’s minimalistic sets, Chia Patino’s tight stage direction and Donald Byrd’s eerie choreography that shows Orpheus barely managing the three creepy rubber band-like dancers while Eurydice becomes one with them, laughing and spinning. One feels immersed in the other-worldly atmosphere — are we on Earth, in Paradise, in Hell?

The stage is small and all of these visual effects brilliantly fill it up. The music, directed by Stephen Stubbs with a 10-piece orchestra from the Seattle Symphony, is so subtle, it becomes almost a backdrop to the visuals. The 10-person chorus sings from backstage, or from the wings (the audience never sees the performers). The music tells the story without overwhelming the production. Stubbs has directed many Orpheus operas and has done his share of Gluck Orfeos. He believes the piece works best for a countertenor singing Orfeo, the range for which Gluck wrote it. And countertenors Stubbs got.

Countertenors Key’Mon Murrah and Christopher Ainslie alternate the role of Orpheus, or Orfeo. I heard Murrah, and his part, of course, is huge. He has to carry the opera — Eurydice (performed Jan. 15 by girlish soprano Shelly Traverse) doesn’t sing until the last 20 minutes or so. Murrah eventually settles himself into a convincing stride by the third part of the one-act opera and his voice soars and envelops us in his loss and tragic error. If you ask me, countertenors are other-worldly, and a bit hard to get used to.

The part of Orpheus, who is most definitely a man, was originally sung by a castrato, a male castrated in pre-puberty to save his choir-boyish voice. The last castrato died in 1922, and other than the Italians, most countries objected to them. Gluck had to rewrite a version for a French production in 1774, with the Orpheus role rejiggered for a tenor rather than for a falsetto range. Sometimes mezzos have sung the role.

But today we have good countertenors, male singers who have developed their falsetto range. For me, the countertenor, no matter how unusual, remains an uncanny voice to behold, especially throughout an entire opera.

Soprano Deanna Breiwick sings the small part of Amore (or is she the devil?) in her SO debut, and she looks fabulous and fierce in the fire-engine-red suit tailored for either a love goddess or a devil. (Liesl Alice Gatcheco designed the costumes, and Amore’s scarlet suit with the feathery epaulets and feathery heart on the jacket’s back, rockstar-like, was her best.) Most of the cast and the artistic team was from Seattle or nearby Northwest, so this opera is truly a local effort.

Countertenor Key’Mon Murrah and soprano Deanna Breiwick in Seattle Opera's 'Orpheus and Eurydice.' Photo by Sunny Martini.
Countertenor Key’Mon Murrah and soprano Deanna Breiwick in Seattle Opera’s ‘Orpheus and Eurydice.’ Photo by Sunny Martini.

As everyone knows, the Orpheus myth is irresistible artistic fodder and will likely live forever, confronting us with questions about grief, life, death, other worlds beyond Earth, acceptance and various kinds of love. Eurydice dies on her wedding day and her heartbroken husband Orpheus believes he can bring her back to earthly life from the underworld or the “other world.” Using his gift of music to navigate, he has a chance. (We can always think magically when grief has us by the balls, right?) But if he attempts to retrieve his love and bring her back to Earth, he can’t look back at her as he guides her through the otherworld.

And therein lies the catch. Of course, he looks back. That’s what humans – and even demi-gods – do. When Orrfeo does, he kills Eurydice again. Still, it’s the journey that intrigues us, and the accompanying anxiety and tension that we experience over whether or not he will blow it and turn his head.

Countertenor Key’Mon Murrah and soprano Shelley Traverse in Seattle Opera's 'Orpheus and Eurydice.' Photo by Sunny Martini.
Murrah and soprano Shelley Traverse. Photo by Sunny Martini.

If the production scrimped on anything, it was the subtitles projected onto the scenery and video backdrops. There weren’t very many of them. Then again, most of us know the story. And unfortunately a rogue cell phone went off for what seemed an interminably long time during the performance.

No doubt, with such superb mythic material, another Orpheus adventure will surface, with yet another twist on the timeless tale. SO’s fresh interpretation was striking, tightly executed and perfectly suited to the small stage.

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Angela Allen writes about the arts, especially opera, jazz, chamber music, and photography. Since 1984, she has contributed regularly to online and print publications, including Oregon ArtsWatch, The Columbian, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Willamette Week, The Oregonian, among others. She teaches photography and creative writing to Oregon students, and in 2009, served as Fishtrap’s Eastern Oregon Writer-in-Residence. A published poet and photographer, she’s a member of the Music Critics Association of North America and a recipient of an NEA-Columbia Journalism grant. She earned an M.A. in journalism from University of Oregon in 1984, and 30 years later received her MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from Pacific Lutheran University. She lives in Portland with her scientist husband and often unwieldy garden. Contact Angela Allen through her website.

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