Lyric And Joffrey Team On Elegant ‘Orphée et Eurydice’

In a new John Neumeier production, Orphée (Dmitry Korchak) sees Eurydice (Andriana Chuchman) taken from him.
(Photos by Todd Rosenberg, courtesy Lyric Opera of Chicago)
By Lawrence B. Johnson

CHICAGO – Near the close of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus, the cool-headed and staunchly rational Duke of Athens, reflects on how, viewed through the prism of life’s mysteries, the lunatic, the lover, and the poet might be perceived as facets of the same human spirit. What’s peculiar to the poet, Theseus concludes, is that “as imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothingness a local habitation and a name.”

Such an airy marvel made substantial is director-choreographer John Neumeier’s magical and yet profoundly credible transformation of Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice, which opened the season for the Lyric Opera of Chicago on Sept. 23 and continues through Oct. 15. Neumeier’s production reflects the style of opera in 1774 Paris, and the conforming revisions Gluck made to Orfeo ed Euridice, his Italianate original first seen in Vienna a dozen years earlier. Neumeier’s version virtually reshapes the opera into a masque, with a profusion of dance brought to exquisite purpose here by the Joffrey Ballet.

In his revision for Paris, Gluck provided copious ballet music, and Neumeier has missed no opportunity to enrich – indeed, to illustrate — the ancient narrative through a tapestry of dance. But wearing his director’s hat, he also has spun Gluck’s redemptive love story (even while utilizing the original French libretto by Pierre-Louis Moline) into a poignant modern tragedy. This Orphée is a tale of real loss and authentic grief for which there is no supernatural cure: What’s gone is gone; in its place abides only grief, stunning and painful.

Amour (Lauren Snouffer, right) strikes a deal with grieving Orphée (Korchak).

The vocal rock upon which Gluck’s opera rests is Orphée himself; to him falls the lion’s share of the singing. And in the Russian tenor Dmitry Korchak, this production enjoys a star not only of glittering vocal means but also an actor with dramatic sensibilities hardly common even in today’s more theatrically aware opera world. Korchak’s silvery, pliant sound penetrated to the soul of a man shattered by the instant death of the woman he had just married. Upon first learning of his new wife’s fate, the benumbed spouse can utter only one word: “Eurydice, Eurydice,” a lyric keening that Korchak infused with searing tenderness.

It is really Orphée’s story. When Eurydice (soprano Andriana Chuchman) is taken from him, the sympathetic goddess Amour (soprano Lauren Snouffer) offers Orphée a shot at getting her back: If he descends into the underworld and confronts the guardian Furies, he will be allowed to lead a revived Eurydice back to earth. But the deal comes with a big proviso: At no time during their return together can Orphée look upon the face of his beloved. In the event, Eurydice complains with increasing bitterness, not to say petulance, until poor Orphée feels he has no choice but to turn and reassure her of his love. (Mon Dieu, he has voluntarily journeyed to Hades to fetch her!)

Orphée (Korchak) is forbidden to look at Eurydice (Chuchman).

But in Neumeier’s telling, Eurydice has some cause for doubt. During the opera’s overture, a brilliant skein of music that scarcely portends tragedy, we observe ballet dancers in class, Eurydice among them. Orphée is the master. They have a spat and she storms out. The instant the overture concludes – crash! The curtain rises on a car smashed into a tree, and Eurydice is ejected from the vehicle, dead when she hits the ground. Orphée gets a call on his cellphone and rushes to the scene. Bewildered and grief-stricken, he is approached by Amour — in jeans and a jacket — with her reclamation deal.

Gluck’s writing for Amour rises into the realm of Orphée, and Snouffer delivered it with warmth, urgency, and precision. While Eurydice’s role could hardly be called thankless, she doesn’t get to sing until well along in the story, and then she’s carping at Orphée about not looking at her. Chuchman made a vocally assured Eurydice, with a big sound, but she came up short of the complex emotions coursing through this woman in so tantalizing and yet fraught a circumstance.

When Orphée capitulates and looks at her, only to lose her again, this time for good, he expresses his utter despair in the opera’s consummate musical turn, the aria “Che farò senza Euridice” – sorry, but it is forever enshrined in Italian. It was sung here, to be sure, in French: “J’ai perdu mon Eurydice.” Korchak’s emotionally crushing embrace of that hard reality, that she is never coming back, brought down the house.

The Lyric Opera Chorus, prepared by Michael Black, achieved an aura of divine commentary through its finely gauged off-stage singing, and conductor Harry Bicket ensured both authentic style and measured drama in all the musical elements – not least in the vital and fluent playing of the Lyric Opera Orchestra.

Joffrey principals Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili.

But nothing in this elegantly wrought enterprise gave greater pleasure than the splendid and nearly ubiquitous presence of the dancers of the Joffrey Ballet. Colorfully and evocatively costumed by Neumeier – who made it a hat trick by also designing the rotating set modules – the dancers conjured Greek poetry of arms, heads, torsos, and legs in creating dramatic context for Orphée’s futile venture. As balletic doubles for the lovers, and spotlighted among the Blessed Spirits in the underworld, Joffrey principals Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili offered exquisite pas de deux.

The original opera has Amour honoring the hero’s good faith by retrieving Eurydice from Hades after all. Perhaps it happened thus, in mythic Greece. But in the modern world, no traveler has crossed the bourn of that undiscovered country and come this way again. So it is here, despite Orphée’s fondest wish, his reverie, his melancholy vision.

Lawrence B. Johnson, editor of the performing arts web magazine Chicago On the Aisle, was for many years music critic for The Detroit News and has written for The New York Times as well as several music magazines.