The Death of Orpheus comes to life in East Hollywood

United StatesUnited States Landi, The Death of Orpheus (La morte d’Orfeo): Soloists, Guest musicians and members of the LA Opera Orchestra / Stephen Stubbs (conductor). Los Angeles Opera, El Cid, Los Angeles, 18.1.2020. (DD)


Director – Sara E. Widzer
Designer – Leon Wiebers


Orpheus – Anthony Ciaramitaro
Eurydice, Thetis, Second Euretto – Erica Petrocelli
Mercury – Jacob Ingmar
Fate, a god, Jove – Christopher Carbin
Charon, River Hebro, Fury – Michael J. Hawk
Apollo, Fileno – Robert Stahley
Fosforo, First Euretto – Sylvia d’Eramo
Bacchus, Third Euretto, Fourth Maenad – Taylor Raven
Aurora, Calliope – Gabriela Flores
Nisa, Third Maenad – Sarah Vautour
First Maenad – Alaysha Fox
Second Maenad – Tiffany Townsend

The dinner theatre/performance site/flamenco venue El Cid in East Hollywood might seem at first glance to be a peculiar place to stage a Renaissance opera. But Stephano Landi’s The Death of Orpheus is no ordinary work, and El Cid is no ordinary club – and so it came to be on three consecutive evenings in January.

First performed in 1619, this rarely seen opera chronicles the demise of Orpheus, his determination after death to reconnect with his beloved Eurydice and the subsequent (unsuccessful) attempt to bring it about. It’s full of florid recitatives, exquisite arias and demanding choruses, and requires that attention be paid to the period demands of instrumentation and human expression.

The actual stage at El Cid, tucked into one side of the room, had space for the musicians and their bulky Renaissance instruments, and the dining room became the stage. There are only 75 or so seats at El Cid, and The Death of Orpheus seized every opportunity to spill out over the floor of the restaurant, giving the singers a chance to clown around with audience, ad lib on occasion and genially break down the fourth wall.

The story of Orpheus and Eurydice is among the best-known fables of Greek mythology. On the day of their wedding celebration, Eurydice is bitten by a venomous snake and dies shortly thereafter. The distraught Orpheus then travels to the Underworld to retrieve her. Pluto, God of the Underworld, consents to this but with the condition that Orpheus must not turn to look at Eurydice as she follows him out. Just as Orpheus’s foot is about to touch down in the world of the living, he looks around, and Eurydice falls back into Hades, this time not to be retrieved.

Landi’s opera is divided into five acts that continue on from where Monteverdi’s Orpheus and Eurydice ends. The first act sets up the gods’ observations of human destinies, and their role as harbingers and possessors of human fate. In Act II, Orpheus celebrates his birthday with a dazzling virtuosic vocal entry, but he is warned to stay clear of the snares of women. Two gods make their appearances – Mercury, the messenger announcing that Jove will not come because of a deadly vision he witnessed; and Apollo, who encourages Orpheus to follow in the path of virtue. Orpheus then declares that he will not be tempted by beautiful women.

Act III is given over to the rage of Bacchus who, like any good god, attempts to ruin Orpheus’s birthday party. Really! The Maenads (‘frenzied women’) work themselves into a morbid lather at the goading of Fury. The fourth act tells the story of the death of Orpheus: while he ponders returning to the kingdom of death, the Maenads and Furies find him and do their dirty work.

The final act brings the spirit of Orpheus to the underworld. Here Mercury informs Orpheus that Eurydice has drunk from the waters of Lethe and thereby forgotten him. Orpheus is welcomed by Jove into his own constellation, Lyra, and the celebration begins.

Most of the performers are members of LA Opera’s Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program, and many were making their LA Opera debuts. As Orpheus, Anthony Ciaramitaro brought a surprisingly modernistic element of personality to the character. It’s an exhausting, enervating role, which he executed with flawless élan. Erica Petrocelli demonstrated great range and style in both her singing and acting. She was especially moving in her solo work, but equally so as one of the Three Breezes. Baritone Michael J. Hawk has a great stage presence and provided comic relief. Countertenor Jacob Ingmar’s Mercury possessed a purity of voice that seemed to be truly of the period, and bass-baritone Christopher Carbin was a strong presence in each of his three parts. Robert Stahley’s Apollo was as sane and level-headed as, I suppose, a god can be, and even exerted a kind of paternal calm. If I had any objection to this wonderful performance, it was the lack of harmonic texture and blending due to the fact that, most of the time, the singers were widely spread out in the space. But kudos to all twelve singers – they warrant and deserve praise.

It was Sara Widzer’s directorial debut, and her sense of drama was appropriate for this period piece, where humor and tragedy properly balanced one another, and everything was done in the service of the opera. Given the venue, the result was miraculous. The minimal design by Leon Wiebers was more than appropriate, especially given the space he had to work in. Both let the music and drama speak for itself, which in itself deserves three cheers.

Led by conductor Stephen Stubbs, a master of period music and a chitarronist, the musicians performed with balance and taste. One should not forget that it was also Maestro Stubbs who directed the first recording of this marvelous work. Perfection is a dangerous word, but the instrumental ensemble I heard was flawless.

Both thoughtfulness and dramatic brio were displayed again and again. What a pleasure. What an evening. What a gem.

Douglas Dutton

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