Dazzling setting can’t make up for lackluster storytelling in Chicago Opera Theater’s ‘Orpheus and Euridice’

The Chicago Opera Theater’s production of Orpheus and Euridice features a breathtaking and unusual stage: a shimmering indoor pool surrounded by colored lights and Grecian statues. A boat drifts at one end of the pool which is used to ferry the actors back and forth, allowing for a considerable display of balance on the part of the theatrical players.

Todd Palmer plays an Orpheus who speaks solely through his clarinet playing, and does so with incredible skill. Even when standing in a boat that is being pushed across the pool, he makes the balancing of music and coordination look easy. The narrator of the story, soprano Valerie Vinzant, gives a performance of equal quality. Her voice and the clarinet solos reverberate over the water and into every corner of the stage area. Silent actors act out the life of the main characters with no outlet but their gestures and expressions. With the reflections on the water, the sound of waves, and the help of the Metropolis String Quartet, it’s easy to forget that the action is taking place on a swimming pool.

It’s a spectacular setting- but the story within it is amazingly disappointing. In a word, this opera is boring.

There’s no excuse for this, given the source material. Orpheus and Euridice’s story in ancient mythology is heartbreaking, and thinly sketched enough to allow for a deeper exploration.  The tale is simple enough: Orpheus, an ancient Greek singer good enough to outplay the Sirens, lost his wife to a snakebite and descended to the Underworld to bring her back. His music charmed both Hades and Persephone- rulers of the Underworld not renowned for their mercy and goodwill- and they agreed that he could bring Euridice back as long as he walked ahead of her and did not look back until they both reached the land of the living. Unfortunately Orpheus looked back as soon as he got to the surface – his wife hadn’t made it that far and was trapped in the Underworld again, this time permanently.

Given that the entire focus of the myth is Orpheus’s quest to regain his wife, you would expect that a proportionate amount of story time would be spent on his underworld journey. Instead, Ricky Ian Gordon’s Orpheus and Euridice spends more than half the story on the courtship of the two and their lives together.

If this was done to give a sense of loss when Euridice dies, it failed. Despite songs describing the joy of their life, the lyrics do so in details that evoke a Disney montage rather than a tragic myth. We’re told that they meet. That Orpheus was stunned by her beauty. That nature blossomed so beautifully for this couple that flowers seemed to say “hello” even in winter. That people liked going to their house. That “she grew sick. Who knows how.”

Only after forty minutes of this inane narrative do we finally get to see the Underworld, and it’s a truly impressive visual display. The blindfolded actors surrounded by mist and red light in the makeshift River Styx are an eerie sight. Palmer’s clarinet playing coupled with Vinzant’s singing creates an aura of otherworldly power- as long as you don’t pay attention to the words Vinzant is singing. There’s something rather anticlimactic in describing the ultimate loss of Euridice as “She made a weird sound and disappeared.”

In introductory remarks to the opera, the audience was told that the text had been written in a day. If true, it shows badly. The lyrics are astoundingly mediocre, and in many instances laughably bad. There’s no denying that emotion fills this piece, but it’s not structured in any way, and the storytelling suffers for it. There’s no command of the grief and no channel for it in the characters. One singer, even one as skilled as Vinzant, is not enough to make unmapped emotion a good story or even a good opera. And good story is what this beautiful production desperately needed.

If you attend this production only for the setting, it may certainly be the four-star product the Chicago Tribune saw. But if you attend for a tragedy, a myth, or even a story, Orpheus and Euridice will only disappoint. And for this staging, that’s the saddest thing of all.

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