Opera Review: Euridice and Orpheus by Ricky Ian Gordon

Only from the Greek worldview has the genuine artwork of drama been able as yet to blossom forth. — Wagner

Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh, founded around the time when Europe was enthralled by the poetic frenzy of Romanticism, was a fitting location for the three summer evenings (June 9-11) of theatrical lamentation for love lost to death. Each performance started with Schubert’s famous art-song The Shepherd on the Rock—which he wrote in poor health during the last months of his life—and ended with Ricky Ian Gordon’s theatrical song cycle Euridice and Orpheus (originally Orpheus and Euridice), written on commission from clarinetist Todd Palmer at the time when the composer was in agony over his partner’s imminent death. The Arcadian scenery of the cemetery contrasted by its monolithic statuary, reminiscent of antiquity, served as the perfect setting for the pastoral German art-song and the contemporaneously re-envisioned myth of Orpheus’ quest to release his wife from death.

But who represents Orpheus, the musician and poet, in this opera? While writing the piece, Gordon imagined the clarinetist Todd Palmer as Orpheus: “In the books, it was a lute./ But in my dream/ it was a reed./ […]/ he could cry/through that strange instrument.” In Pittsburgh’s production, Attack Theatre’s dancer Dane Toney articulates Orpheus’ excited unrest by placing it inside his moving body, thus turning joy and sorrow into vivifying motion. Perhaps Orpheus is also the composer himself, a poet and musician, drafting the essential shape of his own sorrow to fit the finest of the ancient story’s tragic tissue. Similarly, Euridice is represented both by a singer (Laura Knoop Very) and by a dancer (Liz Chang).

Though sometimes harmonically unsettling, Gordon’s Euridice and Orpheus was essentially melodic and tonal, at times alluding to Broadway pop and Benjamin Britten’s art-songs. But when the tragedy started to show its first adumbration of darkness, the music slowly became suffused with the kind of aching that can be produced by a prolonged melody (the “effect of suspension,” as Schopenhauer would have it), as its duration restlessly created the illusion of dissonance, longing to be anchored back to consonance.

Gordon’s musical intention was adeptly embodied by the lyric coloratura soprano of Very, while the beauty of the “richer, darker, starker” sound which, according to the libretto, only reed instruments can produce, was emanating from the two clarinets played by a native of Pittsburgh, John Culver, and a Carnegie Mellon graduate, Ricky Williams.

Under the mindful choreography of Peter Kope and Michele de la Reza, the dancers of The Attack Theatre (Liz Chang, Dane Toney, and Ashley Williams as Spirit) represented the story in a language of emotive kinesthetics that uniquely employed many of the elements of contemporary dance, including mime, props, and contact improvisation. Even the pantomime (one of the popular forms of entertainment in Ancient Greece, accompanied by a sung narrative and flute) was, appropriately to the event’s purpose, part of the choreographers’ palette.

Nature lent her assistance. The performance began with sunset and serenity, but later stormy weather gathered as the plot grew more tense. The valiant Orpheus attempted to inveigle Hades and Persephone to liberate Euridice from the underworld. Her dancing, which at first had been ecstatic and joyous, began, under the coercion of fate, to gravitate towards the River Styx, represented by the little pond in the cemetery. During lulls in the music, the listeners’ attention was caught by a honking sound that turned out to be an addition by the inhabitants of the pond, a flock of geese warning of the approach of the tragic conclusion.

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Filed under: Prose, Reviews: Performing Arts, Rita Malikonyte Mockus