Orpheus & Euridice: Chicago Tribune, 2013

COT shines shimmering modern light on ancient myth

Chicago audiences have dipped their toes in various realms of aquatic theater before.

Think of director Mary Zimmerman’s widely successful, Tony Award-winning stage adaptation of Ovid’s "Metamorphoses," which originated in 1998 at Lookingglass Theatre where a pond was the playing area. Pegasus Players made a similar splash a decade earlier with its production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical "The Frogs" at the swimming pool of Truman College.

Now along comes Ricky Ian Gordon’s "Orpheus and Euridice," a song cycle cum music theater piece that receives its Chicago premiere in a poetic production by Chicago Opera Theater. It’s based on an inspired idea of general director Andreas Mitisek: Why not use the indoor swimming pool of Eckhart Park, on West Chicago Avenue, as a stand-in for the River Styx?

That idea is brilliantly carried out by a finely knit ensemble of singing and nonsinging performers, instrumentalists and extras, in a sparing staging and production design by Mitisek that are pure theatrical magic.

"Orpheus," the first in a series of site-specific shows Mitisek plans to present each season around town with COT, opened Friday night and plays through next weekend as part of the Chicago Park District’s "Classics in the Park" series. It’s the clearest indication yet of the fresh directions in which the troupe’s enterprising new boss hopes to take the city’s second opera company.

Gordon composed his very personal version of the Orpheus myth as a means of working through his grief over the loss of his partner to AIDS in 1996. What clarinetist Todd Palmer, who commissioned the score and gave the first performance, asked for was a short piece for clarinet, soprano and piano he could take on a recital tour. What he wound up with was an hourlong song cycle rife with theatrical possibilities that have found their way into several other productions since the 2001 premiere.

The prolific Gordon comfortably straddles the worlds of musical theater, opera and art song, and his score to "Orpheus," made up of 15 concise scenes in two acts, demonstrates how seamlessly he’s absorbed each influence into an attractive, tonal-diatonic idiom that’s recognizably his own: a jaunty lick of Copland here, a catchy jazz-riff there, a pronounced melodic gift everywhere.

Palmer, the only member of the show’s "original cast," is not only a splendid performer on clarinet but he invests Orpheus with the grace and elegance of a dancer. Early in the show, in fact, he plays an inviting soliloquy on his instrument while navigating the pool in a small white boat. He never misses a musical beat or, for that matter, his footing, which is no mean feat.

The songs without words that pour from his clarinet tell of the bliss Orpheus shares with his beloved Euridice, the helplessness he feels as her life slips away and the devastation he experiences when he loses her, not once but twice. Other clarinetists have played the piece but I can’t imagine any of them surpassing Palmer.

In Valerie Vinzant, a former member of COT’s young artist program, he has an ideal romantic and musical partner. The soprano doubles as an Euridice of striking vocal and physical beauty, and as a storyteller who guides the audience unerringly through each swift change of scene. She stops the show with her haunting song, "I Am Part of Something Now," in which Euridice exults in the connectedness Orpheus’ love has brought her.

The nonsinging Orpheus and Euridice, actors Matt Messina and Kate Smith, literally immerse themselves in their roles and do so with the same sensitivity to mood and dramatic pacing as their musical counterparts. The most affecting tableau comes following Euridice’s demise, when a supine Smith, shrouded in yellow gauze, is borne across the pool on a raft pulled by creatures of the Underworld. Leading the cortege is Palmer’s Orpheus, playing an oddly chipper dirge while perched on the shoulders of one of the show’s four extras, who perform various mute parts.

Mitisek’s production design, which is based on the version of "Orpheus" he directed and designed for his Long Beach Opera in Southern California in 2008 and 2010, makes resourceful use of the Eckhart Park facility. The deep blues and hellish reds of David Lee Bradke’s lighting cast rippling shadows on the surrounding walls. A row of Grecian statuary and columns, flickering TV monitors and billows of dry-ice fog enhance the moods evoked by the music.

That music is beautifully supplied by Chicago’s Metropolis String Quartet and double bassist Timothy Shaffer, expertly conducted from, and played at, the piano by Stephen Hargreaves. The ensemble is stationed at a corner of poolside. Amplification is subtly used to direct vocal and instrumental sound in the pool’s swimmy (if you’ll pardon the expression) acoustical space.

Surrounding the pool on three sides, the capacity audience of approximately 240 people cheered the performers heartily following Friday’s performance. Take a bow, everyone.

– John von Rhein, The Chicago Tribune, 3 November 2013