|Cullen Gandy, Daniel Curran, Yungee Rhie, Jamilyn Manning-White (photo by Richard Termine)
In a master stroke of site-specific staging we are invited into St. Paul's Chapel, the oldest continually inhabited building in New York, to hear one of the oldest surviving operas. Although this is not the first opera to be based on the myth of Orpheus, (that honor goes to Peri's 1600 version) nor the most frequently performed (that honor likely goes to Gluck's l762 version) nor the favorite of early music fans (that honor might go to the 1607 Monteverdi version) it was well worth the gorgeous production it received from Gotham's completely effective production team comprising Stage Director Andrew Eggert, Set Designer Julia Noulin-Merat, Costume Designer Vita Tzykun, Lighting Designer Mark Stanley, Choreographer Doug Elkins with projections by S. Katy Tucker.
The set was simply a slightly raised platform with a white scrim obscuring the sight, but not the sound, of eight early music specialists producing the most gorgeous sounds, conducted by Neal Goren. The circular staircase and the balcony were put to good use for the gods Apollon, Pluton and Proserpine. Apollon was magnificently sung by rising star baritone John Brancy, costumed in golden tunic with a curly blond wig. Pluton and Proserpine, costumed in black with steampunk influence, were finely sung by appropriately booming bass Jeffrey Beruan and the scintillating soprano Mary Feminear.
That staircase was also used for Orphée's descent to the underworld. Daniel Curran's winning tenor was persuasive in expressing the many moods of the young bard--joyful at his impending marriage, grief at losing his bride, imploring as he pleaded for her release. Since the third act (in which he loses her again when he disobeys the instructions to not look back) was either never written or was lost, we the audience can leave without despair.
We have witnessed happy shepherds and nymphs celebrating the impending marriage in charming dance and song. We have witnessed poor Euridice (lovely soprano Jamilyn Manning-White) felled by a snake bite and Orphée's grief. We hear Apollon's advice and Orphée's pleading his case. We thrill to Pluton's majesty and Proserpine's hard heart softening. We see the happily reunited couple climbing out of Pluto's realm. We are satisfied without the tragic third act.
The contrast between the verdant first act and the threatening second act, which takes place in the underworld, were effectively conveyed by projections on the scrim and the spectacle of three bad boys suffering torments that were relieved by Orphée's singing. Light-hearted shepherds were transformed into agonized souls by virtue of vocal color, scary makeup and tattered costumes. Until we recognized the superlative voices of Cullen Gandy and Mr. Brancy, we would never have identified them.
The performance was a perfect example of all elements coming together with nary a weak link. The Gotham Chamber Opera is known for producing unusual chamber works in unusual venues. Our New Year's wish is that all future productions be as effective as this one.
© meche kroop