Opera AND Ballet
Opera for ballet lovers or ballet for opera lovers—either lens will do when trying to objectively describe this collaboration by Lyric Opera and Joffrey Ballet. This pen, however, craves to crow about Orphée et Eurydice more hyperbolically.
This is a performance that can be described as historic. For starts, Orphée et Eurydice is the opening opera of the Lyric’s 63rd season. On opening night, high temperature and humidity competed with the finery —tuxedos and ball gowns— swishing in the lobbies before the performance began. From the vantage point of the dress circle (3rd floor), the orchestra standing to give a rousing rendition of the national anthem became a curtain riser on just how many of the audience members—opera diehards all, one might presume—have classically trained voices. Within close earshot was both a sparkling soprano and stalwart tenor singing loudly above the-rest-of-us din; scattered about the dress circle one could hear more.
The curtain then opens on a ballet rehearsal room, replete with floor-to-ceiling mirrors on the back wall that does that trick of doubling the action in your visual field and letting you see the dancers at rehearsal from all angles. From the excellent dress circle perch, at least, you also are treated to seeing the conductor’s reflection and you can look down to see much of the orchestra and later the most excellent Lyric chorus which sings from the orchestra pit in this production.
For ballet lovers who thrill at seeing how the sausage gets made, this quick peek into the dancers’ rehearsal space excites even before the singing begins. Orphée is at work as ballet choreographer/director and then his wife and prima ballerina Eurydice arrives. The two have a wordless lover’s spat. She goes stomping out, and in short order we see her killed in a car accident rolling lifeless out of the car.
Classic Tale of Grief
What ensues is the classic ancient Greek myth of Orpheus (Orphée) and Eurydice, which is a primer on grief for the ages. Driven to despair, Orpheus follows Eurydice to the underworld to bring her back to life. The gods have granted him this chance with the proviso that he refrain from looking at his wife until they have concluded their journey. She whines and pines so much that he can’t stand it, turning back to look at her against the gods’ wishes, thereby killing her yet again. Girlfriend! That should teach you to be so needy! Orpheus, get a grip! Luckily Amour, brings her back to life yet again, at least in his mind’s eye, where his wife will be immortal in the ballet he has created.
The touch of a car accident and the contemporary garb worn by Orphée and his sidekick comforter, Amour, catapult this tale into an accessible modern context. Subliminally we are channeling Mothers Against Drunk Driving and every young widow or widower we know or have known experiencing the grief of life cut down way too soon.
Sweet Sweet Song
This is an opera that lets you traverse the terrain of grief in this metaphorically journey with Orphée, guided by the beautiful 18th century score by Christoph Willibald Gluck. There are three main singers, along with the chorus, and in this production heartstrings are constantly thrummed by the sweetness of their voices. Russian tenor Dmitry Korchak plays Orphée in his Lyric debut. His is a voice that excites a craving for more with each note. And in this role, Korchak shows considerable acting chops as well, apparent even from a 3rd floor view without opera glasses.
Lyric Ryan Opera Center alumna Andriana Chuchman similarly sings the part of Eurydice so, so sweetly. The surprise, if you will, is how her soprano lovelies come paired with a physical grace that allows her to at times seamlessly meld with the Joffrey dancers as though she is part of the ensemble, such that this writer was wondering if/when this was her expected double, until she answered by starting to sing again.
Fellow soprano Lauren Snouffer sings the part of Amour and here too excites an interest to hear her hold forth in a solo concert performance some time.
Neumeier’s Masterful Touch
Lovely voices all—but for some an equal treat is truly the dancing. Lyric is no stranger to making a choreography showcase part of their production jewelry, but this production of Orphée et Eurydice has simply raised the bar to a new height. If you love ballet and the Joffrey Ballet in specific, this is your show.
Or perhaps it is more accurately described as John Neumeier’s show—who is Orphée et Eurydice’s director, choreographer, and set/costume/lighting designer. His touch is by any measure a total WOW!
Choreography –wise he takes us on a tour of the Joffrey troupe’s incredible range from the most classic on pointe style (especially the pas de deux blessed spirits couples) to contemporary-infused ballet moves (especially the Furies) . Given this week’s announcement that Joffrey Ballet will soon be moving its home (2020+) to Lyric’s stage it was especially noteworthy how the ensemble seemed to breathe free on the large Lyric stage, giving ample room for Neumeier to sometimes seed different corners and spaces within the space with varying movement phrases and codas.
To this writer though, it is Neumeier’s perfection in blending song, dance, set, lights, and costumes with such a sensitive rheostat-like control that is this production’s mooring.
While it is not unprecedented or unusual to have a solo aria delivered in front of the curtain or in some other way given such focus, Neumeier staging of Korchak’s many solos or duets with Snouffer by a sparse park bench or centered on the bare darkened stage spotlights the stellar quality of their voices masterfully. When the chorus is paired with the dancers one is struck by how in balance the visual and audio stimulation is. It’s as though Neumeier had been able to do scans on the audiences’ brain pleasure centers to know exactly how and when to tune in and amplify sound vs. sight for our maximum pleasure.
The set design –mainly made of moving triangle-based floors with varying polygon window and door type openings massages the space up and down into focal centers that spotlight even more than the lighting per se. At times they seem to be geometric Alps.
In an interview with Neumeier in the program notes he explains that he took on these many hats for this production in interests of “unity”. Neumeier says “Creating a ballet means creating a new world.” Indeed!
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO. Click here to read — Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Note: An excerpt of this review appears in Theatre in Chicago.
Thru October 15
Civic Opera House
20 N. Wacker Drive
Chicago, IL 60606