By Patricia Padurean
The great thing about Instagram is that it edits the user experience. It offers you an image, cutting out the surrounding noise, sparing you the pain of listening to a hipster asking his hipster friends, “Do you think I should angle the beetroot like this or will that compete too much with the rutabaga?” If Instagram suddenly were to merge with Vine and rip away the veil of silence to reveal its auditory underbelly, the result might be something like Chicago Opera Theater’s production of Orpheus & Euridice.
This was less an opera and more of a socially-climbing, upwardly-mobile one-woman musical with some cadenzas interspersed throughout like so many unnecessary fur coats in summer. In the introduction, COT director Andreas Mitisek shared with the audience gathered around Eckhart Park Pool that composer Ricky Ian Gordon wrote the libretto in one feverish night. It shows. A strong editing eye might have noticed the large leaps in tone and the absurdly anatomically precise account of Orpheus’s body parts strewn around the River Styx (“there likes his heart…there’s his liver….and his floating head”). Instead, the editing eye was unnecessarily projected on a number of screens, blinking out at the audience, seeing us seeing it not doing its job.
This spring, Nicholas Spice wrote a piece about Wagner for the London Review of Books in which he describes the conventions of 19th century opera and the ways in which Wagner subverted them.
The state in which [Wagner] found the art of opera in the middle of the 19th century didn’t please him. He deplored its tired routines and swept them away. Where a traditional opera typically hauled itself along through a series of arias, duets and ensemble pieces, strung along a line of recitative, Wagner integrated words, drama and music into a discourse of continuous gesture. This did a lot to dismantle the structures which in traditional opera keep the audience at a distance from the action.
Spice argues that short self-sufficient pieces of music eject the audience from the narrative. He’s a smart man so there’s probably something to that. Yet Orpheus & Euridice relied on a single soprano to recite the narrative of the entire opera, altogether eschewing duets and traditional understandings of arias that explore the singer’s feelings about her situation within the action. Rather, our intrepid soprano informed the audience very flatly about the goings-on acted out within the pool by a mute Orpheus and mute Euridice. The formula of the libretto went something along the lines of: “Euridice did X and it made Orpheus feel like Y.”
Not that I feel overly comfortable contradicting Spice, who has a far more profound understanding of opera than I, but as an engaged member of the audience, this recitative narration kept me at arm’s length from the action (and, if I’m honest, kept me laughing uncharitably). Arias and duets allow you to suspend your disbelief and treat the opera as though it were live action, despite the plot synopsis tucked away in your program. A flat narrative explanation of the plot delivered in trills gives you neither excuse nor opportunity to engage.
This libretto is particularly challenged, unable to hold on to the same tone throughout, but hopping from schmaltzy romanticism to colloquialism (“Euridice made a weird noise and disappeared”) to sheer absurdity (“there is his liver”), from old school grammatical inversions (“she liked this not”) to dry sarcasm (“they don’t joke around down here in Hades”). All this accomplishes is to take the audience out of the action even more.
Add to all this the discordant music suggesting that the soprano and the chamber orchestra stuffed in a corner of the pool are working off different sheet music entirely, phrasing that is strongly reminiscent of Broadway musical theatre, and the result is a compelling suspicion that the operatic style was merely imposed sporadically as a gratuitous afterthought. “Oh hey, you’re at the opera! You’re so sophisticated!”
At one point, proxy Orpheus and Euridice, played by dancers from the Joffrey Ballet, float hand in hand across the pool in a boat, a visual cue that calls to mind an identical scene in The Little Mermaid. A piece of gauze the length of the pool is slowly unfurled, stretching out behind Euridice like a veil. This image, like so many in the staging, is sublime. Yet it does not shake the conviction that we are watching a badly assembled neogothic monster made of discarded parts of fairy tale, Broadway, and a very intimate therapy session glued together with a hastily applied layer of perfunctory operatic singing by a beleaguered soprano.
Spice is wrong that to be ejected from the action of an opera is necessarily a bad thing, not that he had this kind of disaster in mind when he wrote his piece. Part of the art is lost when everything is spelled out so clearly; that’s not art, it’s throaty Spark Notes. Orpheus’s evocative clarinet solos would have been enough to suggest his emotions to the audience, they hardly needed the soprano’s puerile explanations. Opera is an art form that combines the emotional and narrative suggestive powers of music with poetry. This production of Orpheus & Euridice was mainly prose. So, though visually stunning, it fell flat. Many times I wished to pull back the curtain of silence and just enjoy the imagery and the soothing water. And each time I was thwarted.