Home twenty-four years ago to Los Angeles Olympic competition and since then plenty of national swimming events, the place was eerily lit in blue, the dressy sold-out crowd on the bleachers (grateful for the cushions) gathered not for athletics but music.
It was opening night of Long Beach Opera’s three-evening presentation of a new version of composer Ricky Ian Gordon’s wonderfully evocative, subtle and moving "Orpheus & Euridice," a theatrical, performance version of what originated as a work for just clarinet, piano and soprano.
That’s right, in the pool. Anyone who knows Long Beach Opera’s reputation for innovation and even oddity will not be surprised that the company’s Artistic Director Andreas Mitisek chose to stage this version in the pool, the waters of which stand in for the River Styx, which, in the opera, Orpheus must cross to rescue his love Euridice from death.
There is much to say about the setting, but first the music. There is pleasure in imaging opera in the water, pleasure in the strangeness of chlorine smells and shared discomfort (those bleachers, even with cushions!) But it needs to be said, clearly, that "Orpheus & Euridice" is not a theatrical trick, not a show that needs any production excuses. Gordon’s music is plaintive, delightful, deeply moving. Performed here by Todd Palmer, the clarinetist who commissioned the work and soprano Elizabeth Futral, who has performed Euridice in the work’s world premiers as both concert production and staged work, with pianist Michelle Schumann and the Denali String Quartet, violinists Kevin Kumar and Joel Pargman, violist Alma Fernandez, cellist Timothy Loo and bass Nick Recuber, the work is richly rewarding without adding water.
Composer/lyricist Gordon has already made a name for himself in the world of opera. His "Grapes of Wrath" premiered last year in Minnesota and has already been scheduled for productions elsewhere, notably at Opera Pacific in Costa Mesa next season. His music is lyrical, singable, mixing the modern idiom with a human passion that is deeply felt. "Orpheus & Euridice," with its story of love lost and longed for, has a personal side for the composer, who lost his long-time partner Jeffrey Grossi to illness during the period the work was germinating.
To realize his concept of opera at the Olympic Plaza, a barn-like building with acoustics to match (it has the echo of a cathedral, or an airplane hangar) Mitisek brought Set Designer Alan E. Muraoka on board. He added statues and video monitors on the bleachers across the pool from the opera audience, photo projections on the huge walls, pool-side deck chairs and one simple boat in the pool for Orpheus and Euridice, powered by swimmers, floating on a blue pool, with Dan Weingarten’s movable lighting highlighting the performance. Choreographer Ken Roht created a picture of delicate movement, using Dylan Kenin and Lauren Mace as Orpheus and Euridice as well, their acting and movement mixed with Futral and Palmer’s performance. Marcy Froelich uses simple modern beach wear as effective costumes.
Gordon’s poetic story, projected with only partial success on a hanging across from the audience, tells the story of Orpheus, the gifted musician whose music is transformed when he meets and falls in love with Euridice. When she dies, he follows her across the Styx to Hades and, using his music, brings her back towards the real world, only to lose her again when he looks back to see if she is following. His music becomes unbearably sad and he is destroyed by those who come to hate it.
Futral, dressed in bright yellow, is the vocal embodiment of Euridice, telling the story in Gordon’s words. Palmer, dressed in swimming trunks and a beach shirt, is Orpheus. Futral sings with clarity and passion and deep emotion, her voice an instrument of power and passion, matched by Palmer’s deeply moving clarinet, which can be plaintive, joyous, and screamingly painful. They manage to climb into and out of the boat while performing (Palmer even hitches a ride on piggyback across the Styx) without injury and (mostly) without evoking panic in the otherwise rapt audience.
Acoustics in a hall designed for swimming are a problem. The small string and piano band are near the audience, and the performers are usually close, too, but amplification is necessary and sometimes a little disorienting. The echo is sometimes a wonderful sonic effect, accompanying singer and clarinetist, but sometimes a distraction.
Mace makes a beautiful and affecting second Euridice and Kenin is moving as the duetero-Orpheus. Shannon Ggem (CQ) Roht, Mark Bringelson and Kendra Ware add to the performance as players and as the motive forces in the pool. Mitisek directs the production with simplicity and allows the setting, and Gordon’s music, to tell the tragic, very-human myth. This production will be one to talk about in years to come, and on performance tonight is still available.\John Farrell is a Long Beach freelance writer.