December May 8, 2001


Sight, sound, spectacle

'Orpheus' production melds forms brilliantly

By Kyle MacMillan

One of Western culture's most enduring love tales came vividly to life Saturday night in a new Opera Colorado production of Christoph Willibald Gluck's "Orpheus and Eurydice": that offered a brilliant melding of sight, sound and spectacle.

Almost everything about this offering successfully departs from convention, beginning with the daring choice of Doug Varone, a major figure in the modern-dance world but still an opera novice, to be both director and choreographer.

He conceived a startlingly original and fully formed artistic vision in which movement is the constant foundation for the music and theater, and realism blends easily and seamlessly with fable and myth.

In what is probably the production's most radical and, as it turns out, ingenious aspect, Varone has moved the action to the Great Depression. The period is simply yet powerfully evoked by Allen Moyer's sets, which were inspired by the famed photographs of Walker Evans.

Updating stories is always fraught with creative dangers, but it must be remembered that the myth's very timelessness is what has assured its relevance for generations. And it only makes sense that a tale of desperation be set in a time of desperation.



P. Switzer

Theodora Hanslowe,
front, plays Orpheus. In background is dancer Daniel Charon.

Because the movies were a kind of refuge in the Depression and stars became almost gods, Varone seizes upon them as a critical vehicle in this production. When Orpheus is struggling to get into the underworld, he must fight a mob of ticket holders to a film aptly titled "To Hell and Back."

And the Elysium Fields are depicted as a ballroom scene in a glamorous movie, with the participants in tuxedos and evening gowns. The chorus watches from a balcony above the stage at the back, with a flickering outward light suggesting the moving film.

In Varone's conception, Amor, a winged, happy-go-lucky god of love (wonderfully portrayed by soprano Lynette Tapia, who substituted at the last minute for Julie Cox) is perched high on a faded billboard as the opera opens.

She foresees what is to happen and nudges the usually tragic story along to a happy ending, calling on her assistants at key moments in the story to help the quest of Orpheus, who often comes off as a kind of Charlie Chaplin-like naïf.

The eight terrific dancers from Varone's company play myriad roles in this production. Sometimes they take a direct place in the action, but, at other times, they are more removed, as they essentially act out, emphasize or punctuate through uncomplicated, evocative movement the principals' thoughts and emotions.

The opera was premiered in Vienna in 1762, and the role of Orpheus was originally written for castrato male alto. Opera Colorado chose to present a French version that composer Hector Berlioz created for an 1859 revival, in which Orpheus' high vocal line is sung by a woman.

Offering a commanding, unforgettable portrayal of the central character in this production is mezzo-soprano Theodora Hanslowe. A first-rate singer and actress with a handsome, dark-hued voice, she communicates the fear, pathos and passion of Orpheus with heart-rending sincerity.

Providing an ideal match as Eurydice is soprano Franzita Whelan, whose rich, full voice is perfectly suited to this character. She, to, is a strong actress, and the love duets between the two were affectingly realized.

Enabling everything was Gluck's understated yet sumptuous music, which was compellingly performed by a pit orchestra of Colorado Symphony Orchestra musicians under the commendable leadership of conductor David Agler. Also deserving note was the fine performance of the opera's choir.

Altogether, this production achieves what opera aspires to but all to rarely attains - an almost perfect synthesis of music, dance and theater. In short, it is a triumph.