Banff Goes Gluck One Better With Modernized ‘Orphée’

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Director Joel Ivany staged the 1859 Berlioz version of Gluck’s 1774 ‘Orphée’ and added modern technology. South Korean countertenor Siman Chung took the title role in the retitled ‘Orphé+’ at the Banff Centre. (Photos: Don Lee)

BANFF, AlbertaFor the past five years, Joel Ivany, founder of the innovative Toronto company Against the Grain Theatre, has been guiding the opera programming at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, bringing his experimenting spirit to repertoire both conventional and largely unexplored. In the summer of 2017, for example, he staged Claude Vivier’s Kopernikus with a uniquely theatrical adventurism. In 2014, he brought #Uncle John, Ivany’s reimagined version of Don Giovanni with a contemporary perspective, to Banff’s Cave and Basin outdoor setting.

Amour (Etta Fung) hangs out with Orphée (Siman Chung).

On July 12 and 14, Ivany directed the 1859 Berlioz version of Gluck’s 1774 Orphée et Eurydice, newly retitled Orphée+.  Ivany explained in an interview before the performances that the notion of plus did not connote any suggestion of improvement, but rather modifications that modern technology and instrumentation invite. While Gluck saw his work as a departure from the structural norms of his day, Ivany wanted to give it some contemporary touches.

The Banff iteration of the piece was its third run. The project was a collaboration with Opera Columbus, where it was performed in mid April. Against the Grain mounted Orphée+ at the end of April, winning five  Dora awards from the Toronto theater community, before bringing it to Banff. It was part of a weeklong Opera in the 21st Century program that featured emerging artists.

Gluck’s first two versions of the opera in Italian called for a castrato in the role of Orphée, but a countertenor performed the first French version in 1774. By the time Berlioz had done his revision, the role featured a contralto, but in the Ivany version, South Korean countertenor Siman Chung sang the part. Chung has been the thread of continuity in the casting since the Columbus run, delivering seven performances by the end of the Banff presentation. The Eurydice and Amour singers changed for Banff.

In the Columbus and Toronto presentations, Amour was sung by Marcy Richardson, suspended 15 feet above the stage, perched upon a swing-like hoop. Richardson was unavailable for the Banff performances, so in true contemporary fashion, Ivany hit the internet for his recasting search, and found Etta Fung singing the “Queen of the Night” aria while rotating and flipping herself about between suspended strips of silk fabric.

In this production, as earnest as Amour’s efforts were to bring the two lovers back together, watching Fung sing in solid Baroque fashion while hanging upside down above the stage in a glittering costume drew inevitable giggles from the crowd of about 800 at Banff Centre’s Eric Harvie Theatre. Judging from the applause, though, the audience, mainly from the nearby resort town of Canmore and Calgary, a 90-minute drive east of Banff, loved the conceit of the flying Cupid. The exertions of climbing into position and “floating” above the action had no impact on Fung’s clear, insistent delivery.

Chung has everything a countertenor brings to a role, the warmth and odd otherworldliness of the unnaturally high tessitura for a male singer, and the power to project passion with volume to spare. His performance was compelling both vocally and theatrically.

Eurydice was sung by soprano Miriam Khalil. She made an appearance as a projection in the first half, and was persuasive in her eventual portrayal as the flesh-and-blood woman confused by Orphée’s apparent indifference to her plight. Resigned to her fate as the lost love in the final act, she was convincingly impatient as the aggrieved beloved and became almost religiously tranquil as she withdrew to her home in Elysium, leaving Orphée the one confused. The final scene was strangely calming after all the turmoil of the failed rescue.

Another “plus” of the production was arranger Lauren Spavelko replacing Orphée’s signature harp from the original score with electric guitar, which has many more color possibilities than the acoustic instrument. At times, the guitar sounded almost classical in its timbre and fit the rest of the instrumental qualities, but in more tense moments, especially when the Furies (danced by New York’s Company XIV) emphatically denied the forlorn but intrepid hero entry into his Eurydice’s subterranean home, the dirty guitar sound evoked the anguish and the chaos of the situation. Overall, though, given the style of singing and the 11-piece orchestra’s rendering of the original music in its original idiom, the experiment with the guitar as Orphée’s other voice, purportedly capable of soothing the savage breast, was conceptually understandable if not entirely well integrated aesthetically.

Effective both aesthetically and dramatically were John Gzowski’s sound, JAX Messenger’s lighting, and S. Katy Tucker’s projection and set design. The set was framed by two walls with small, jagged protrusions similar to those on an indoor climbing wall. Depending on the scene, several draped scrims hung down, where projections (from five separate projectors) added color and context to the simple operatic plot unfolding on the stage. The lighting effects were crucial to the atmospheric shifts, from the opening white glare as harsh as the brightness of a surgical suite, to the red glow and pulsations of a demonic hell, to the pastoral yellow and pink in the scene, where the lovers briefly reunite, to the final separation where the underworld is bathed in the serenely comforting whiteness of the Elysium Fields.

The original chorus parts were excised for economy. In their place, Ivany offered a “virtual chorus,” a group of about 50 singers who answered his online call to submit audition recordings of themselves.  Inspired by Eric Whitacre’s example, the voices of the solicited singers, each singing alone, were then melded through digital artistry into a cohesive choir. The singers’ black and white images were then projected onto the narrow scrims, where they could be moved up and down in disembodied choreography. This technological efficiency was one of the best new elements of the Ivany experiment.

Art songs, strung into a loose narrative, were performed by Chamber Werx.

Four of the singers in the five-week emerging artists program were enlisted for Orphée+ , but all of them, as well as their instrumentalist colleagueshad opportunities to shine in two other side projects that were part of the week of opera. The Chamber Werx event took 18 mostly art songs that would normally be sung in recital and gave them their own theatrical treatment.

Director Amiel Gladstone devised a loose narrative (not exactly a plot) into which the songs were “acted out” by singers and instrumentalists in an assortment of costumes, many of them leaning toward the hip. The staging was modest. A circular curtain on a raised platform served as a secret rendezvous spot for two lovers. A long pole held up by a few singers served as a hand support for bus travelers. A wedding celebration required a collection of chairs for the guests. The setting for this crossover treatment of the music was the 246-seat Margaret Greenham Theatre, an intimate space ideal for a small theatrical presentation.

Opera in the 21st Century ended in the outdoor amphitheater under a blazing sun. Members of the emerging artists group, many of whom have had professional engagements already, did a semi-staged and miked performance of Bernstein’s Candide, accompanied by a 13-piece orchestra led by Against the Grain’s music director Christopher Mokrzewski.

Bernstein’s ‘Candide’ had a natural backdrop.

Tenor Jean-Philippe Lazure’s Candide was suitably charming and wholesome, and a standout was Beste Kalender as the Old Lady. Kalender managed an excellent Polish accent and did better than pass for an enterprising senior three times her actual age. She also has a definite comic flair.

Running parallel to the opera programming this summer are several programs focused on the history of the string quartet. (The Banff Centre will be holding the 13th Banff International String Quartet Competition beginning Aug. 26, 2019, and the string quartet repertoire is at the core of its legacy.) The participants in the instrumental program will be mentored by three faculty quartets, the JACK Quartet, the Eybler Quartet, and the Parker Quartet, each focusing on a different stage in the evolution of the string quartet form. The 11 mentored quartets will perform 20 concerts while in Banff.

The Centre has also commissioned eight composers to write 12 new works, which will receive their world premieres over the summer, also by the young players.

Several years ago, there was some concern that Banff was phasing out its commitment to classical music and training. Judging from this summer’s programming, which is directed by two Americans, percussionist and educator Steven Schick, and flutist Claire Chase, the latter a 2012 MacArthur Fellowship recipient, the classical music field’s imminent demise at Banff has been greatly exaggerated.

Bill Rankin is an Edmonton-based freelance writer who covers classical music for Opera Canada and the American Record Guide, among other publications.

Pledging to make their garden grow and getting a forest! The cast of a semi-staged production of Bernstein’s ‘Candide’ in the outdoor amphitheater at the Banff Centre.