IN Series is presenting its 2020-2021 season completely online and free through its platform, INvision, though paid access has additional perks. Their production of Orphée et Eurydice (which became available November 1) embraces the unique qualities of film with no regrets for the absence of stage production. Presenting Opera (a uniquely non-realistic medium) as film (a uniquely realistic media) can be a hard crossover. But there are successful precedents. For example, Michel Legrand’s 1964 The Umbrellas of Cherbourg sung-through musical is a love story of a working-class couple with ambitions no larger than to own a gas station and have a family.
Both LeGrand’s Cherbourg and Gluck’s Orphée are highly stylized: Cherbourg, is photographed in intensely saturated pastel colors, Orphée in insistently inoffensive neutrals; Cherbourg has a histrionic mother, Orphee has an extravagantly grieving protagonist and both composers were known as writers of French music and style. Both also carry a moral about embracing life the way it is.
In classical opera, we are used to seeing European royalty and mythological characters being staged with grand emotions in luxurious and unattainable surroundings. One of the shifts of setting opera in an intimate, realistic setting is the opportunity to consider that our everyday lives are deserving of such magnified attention.
The plot of Orphée et Eurydice is based on the myth of Orpheus, musician, poet and prophet. When his wife Eurydice dies suddenly, Orpheus is so overcome with grief that he travels to the underworld to retrieve her. His music and his words please and persuade the powers that be to allow him to return to the world with Eurydice, so long as he does not look back at her as they progress toward the surface. Orpheus eventually does look back and has to return to the world without Eurydice.
In this IN Series production, Orpheus is no poet or prophet. He is an ordinary man, (played by the countertenor Benjamin Williamson) living with his two children in a middle class American suburban home, a home that looks new, efficient, sterile. His wife has died and he is an intense state of grief.
Most of the libretto is in English, although some is in languages I don’t know. Grief and memory are the center of this production, including the ways that grief can interfere with your relationship with your children and threaten their futures.
I found the opening sequence hypnotic. It establishes what the living situation and the stakes are for Orpheus. This sequence moves us into and through the overture to the first bit of dialogue. We first hear the sounds of a monitor in a hospital room as it flatlines (though a heartbeat – whose? – continues in our ears.) Then we see a man and, as the camera pulls back, we become aware that he’s looking at himself in a mirror (this echoes the mirror sequences in Jean Cocteau’s film version of this story, Orpheus, in which mirrors are the doorway to the underworld.)
The man moves through a wooden door to where two children playing. The addition of the children to this short opera has the effect of raising the stakes around Orpheus’s decision whether to live or die. We see him in distress while his children are filled with a zest for life. We don’t know the cause for the difference of their affect at first. Then the sounds/memories from the vinyl recorded disc (titled Orphée et Eurydice) pull the man (who we now know is Orpheus) into his own thoughts. A knock on the door propels us into the past where we see father and children clothed for some formal occasion. The children are called away and the father sits in isolation as the room begins to fill with funereal floral arrangements as the shadows of well-wishers file past him. It’s a powerful sequence.
Equally engaging: the way the home transformed from one of daily joyful activity to a house of post funeral clutter, without the usual and expected color black as a signal of grief.
Also memorable: the vinyl recorded disc which contains memories of the days Orpheus and Eurydice (Paula Sides) spent together; how that disc connects the surviving family with the dead mother and helps dad return to living in the present; the jumpcut progression through Eurydice’s stages of illness. (The video suggests she died of cancer or covid, though there is no mention of that in the libretto;) The children’s playful insistence on living in the now (crawling over, embracing dad) in the face of the father’s inconsolable grief.
Sides and Williamson are very satisfying, their voices simultaneously clear and intimate. And Aurelia and Elijah who play the children, are delightful. Director Timothy Nelson’s staging is full of surprises, and often joyful ones.
The Chorus of Shenandoah Conservatory enunciates beautifully with a well balanced and robust but unforced sound.
Opera is a big format in which to portray human emotions and it can seem like too much in the intimate space of a movie or video screen. Here, it gently fits the film format. The fact is that the death of any human being – not just kings and queens, poets and prophets – is a huge event, as we are learning, in quantity, to our sorrow.
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Orphée et Eurydice by Christoph Willibald Gluck. New translation by Andrew Albin. Directed by Timothy Nelson. Cast: Paula Sides, Benjamin Williamson with Aurelia and Elijah . Music direction by Simone Luti. The Chorus of Shenandoah Conservatory under the direction of Matthew Oltman. Filming by Jan Capinski . Produced by IN Series . Reviewed by Gregory Ford.