A Director Delves Into Dance for Gluck’s Classic Tale

United StatesUnited States Gluck, Orphée et Eurydice: Soloists, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Harry Bicket (conductor), John Neumeier (director), Joffrey Ballet. Civic Opera House, Chicago. 23.9.2017 (JLZ)

Orphée et Eurydice at Lyric Opera of Chicago (Photo: Andrew Cioffi)
Orphée et Eurydice at Lyric Opera of Chicago (Photo: Andrew Cioffi)

Orphée – Dmitry Korchak
Eurydice – Andriana Chuchman
Amour – Lauren Snouffer

Conductor – Harry Bicket
Director, choreographer, and set/costume/lighting design – John Neumeier
Associate Set Designer – Heinrich Tröger
Lighting Realization – Chris Maravich
Chorus Master – Michael Black

Lyric Opera of Chicago opened the 2017–2018 season with a new production of the 1774 Paris version of Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice. This co-production with Los Angeles Opera and Staatsoper Hamburg was designed, directed, and choreographed by John Neumeier, who has extensive experience with dance. Here he uses Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet.

This production is notable for its use of dance throughout, and not only when the composer calls for a ballet. Neumeier recasts the libretto as the story of a choreographer named Orpheus, who has an argument with his dancer/wife Eurydice. At the end of the overture, Euydice has a fatal accident (the production includes an auto on stage), and what follows is essentially Orpheus’s imagined visit to the underworld to find her. There is also a connection to the visual arts: the choreographer Orpheus is working on a ballet inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s painting “The Isle of the Dead,” a motif that recurs in the set design. Within this scenario, though, the idea of Orpheus as a choreographer compete with the conventional image of Orpheus as the consummate musician. The latter detail is crucial to the second act of Gluck’s score, but receives little attention.

Most of the opera is staged in front of a series of mirrored panels that resemble a rehearsal studio or, when rotated, a twisting passageway. Versions of the Böcklin painting appear, sometimes as the backdrop for various dance tableaus. The choreography itself is not without interest, but here, the constant movement—from the overture to the final ballet suite—detracts from the overall impact. While some sequences use classic poses, others deploy more modern, calisthenics-like motion, such as in the Dance of the Furies. At times the choreography was quite effective—for example, when the spirits allow Orphée to proceed into Hades—but some of the dances were repetitive.

When properly used, dance should function seamlessly within the structure of this venerable opera, but movement tends to dominate this production. As a result, the chorus, which was off-stage throughout, sounded indistinct, lacking its usually clear articulation. A similar weakness was part of Dmitry Korchak’s depiction of Orphée, with the French text unclear, even though he maintained intense volume in his solos. It was unfortunate that his da capo arias lacked variation in the repeat, an element essential to Gluck’s style. Runs were blurred, perhaps due to the blocking of the principals in a relatively narrow space at stage-left.

As Eurydice, Andriana Chuchman was engaging, such as in her nuanced reading of the duet “Viens, suis un époux,” in which Orphée breaks his promise and looks at his wife. As Amour, Lauren Snouffer gave a deft reading, with vocal clarity and fitting style. The trio “Tendre Amour” capped Snouffer’s performance.

In situations like this, liberties raise questions. New productions can frame works imaginatively, as with Lyric’s recent setting of Mozart’s Zauberflöte in the 1950s, or John McVicar’s post-colonial treatment of Handel’s Giulio Cesare for Glyndebourne. But when the innovations shift the focus of the libretto and change its content, questions arise. In Neumeier’s concept, at the end of the final “L’Amour triomphe,” Eurydice walks off the stage and into the theater, while covered in a veil that could be taken as a shroud—a departure from the text. While it can be argued that this captures the spirit of Gluck’s work in celebrating the triumph of love, the approach seems contrary to the composer’s musical and narrative choices.

Ultimately this new production is an effort to provide a vehicle for dance, despite the fact that the opera integrates dance with music and drama. The choreography offers a solution for Gluck’s inclusion of ballets, but does not fully reflect the genius of the composer’s work.

James L. Zychowicz

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