Modern Art Meets Ancient Myth in ‘Orfeo and Euridice’ at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

Is opera a modern art?

It’s a question you’ll find yourself asking as you watch Opera Theater of Saint Louis’ new production of Gluck’s “Orfeo and Euridice”—though it might not be the question you expect to explore when you sign up to watch an opera that was first performed in 1762. The set is gallery-white and completely stark, until a single enormous, straight-to-camera, black-and-white portrait of a beautiful woman is wheeled onto the stage. The actors who stream up the aisles after it are dressed in all-black East Village punk with avant-garde touches; squint and you might spot a septum piercing here and there, maybe a masculine dancer in a calf-skimming jersey gown. We’ll learn, that this is the funeral of Euridice, the tragically lost and much-beloved wife of the musician Orfeo. But until the music starts, you’d swear you’re in a Downtown warehouse, waiting for the artist to arrive.

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Of course, Gluck’s libretto invites this kind of reimagining. The Bohemian composer’s original was itself a retelling of the classic Orpheus myth, which has been interpreted and reinterpreted since the advent of the opera genre itself. But director Ron Daniels torques that tradition just a few degrees further—and it catapults this ancient story to a genuinely contemporary place.

The tale of Orfeo is burned deeply enough into the Western imagination by now that it’s probably not a spoiler to retell it quickly here. Girl dies; guy goes down to the underworld to get girl; guy disobeys the only instruction given to him by the gods, and, as his punishment, loses girl forever. Nor is it much of a spoiler to reveal Gluck’s 250-plus-year-old twist: after guy screws up, the god of love takes pity on him and gives him his girl back anyway. And if you know much about opera at all, you won’t be surprised that both of the lovers’ roles are often played by women, with a high-femme soprano hitting Euridice’s high notes, and a mezzo in male dress belting out the lower registers.

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Daniels’ version of Orfeo, however, doesn’t precisely feel like drag. There’s an androgynous quality to Jennifer Johnson Cano’s performance of the mourning lover, decked out in studded black leather and a long red ponytail. The subtitle screens refer to Orfeo as he, but some audiences might easily read ‘O’ as a masculine-presenting woman, and that ambiguity feels deliberate. In fact, you might find something quietly queer about many aspects of this production, from those first stylish androgyne funeral-goers to the hoard of genderless demons in Lady Gaga-esque red latex raincoats that greet Orfeo after he accepts the angel Amore’s invitation to hell.

Those demons, by the way, are played by a troupe of modern dancers from Big Muddy Dance Company, and they’re a highlight of the show. Choreographer Katarzyna Skarpetowska and her performers elevate the avant-garde aspects of this staging, while also amplifying the opera’s most powerfully felt moments through movement. Her work pairs especially beautifully with videographer Peger Nigrini’s floor-to-ceiling projections, which wash that sparse-white set in abstract images that evoke the drift of clouds in an alien sky or milk swirling under a microscope.

But sometimes, the dancers depart, and great stretches of this production leave either Orfeo or Euridice, or both of the lovers, alone, steering the audience’s full attention towards the extraordinary voices of Cano and Andria Chuchman, who plays her Euridice. When the leads are losing their will—Orfeo to keep his oath to Amore not to meet his wife’s gaze; Euridice to endure what she perceives as Orfeo’s cruelty—they are left to wrestle with the enormity of these emotions on a totally empty stage. Opera-goers who come to enjoy Gluck’s expansive arias and duets without distractions will not be disappointed by the space Daniels provides to let the music shine.

But if you do like a bit of spectacle, you’ll be thrilled with Orfeo’s ending. If there’s anything to be spoiled in this show, it’s the final scene, which will subvert any lingering suspicions that this is a typical treatment of one of opera’s oldest stories. Suffice it to say, there’s glitter and balloons and an exuberant celebration of love that feels especially timely, even for a story that’s been retold countless times.  

Orfeo and Euridice” plays at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis until June 23. To learn more and purchase tickets, visit their website or call 314.961.0644.

All photos copyright Ken Howard and courtesy of OTSL.

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