Collaboration is a word not used much in these hyper-polarized political times. For arts organizations facing some hard realities, it is becoming a vital part of their future. It was this cultural backdrop that brought Lyric Opera of Chicago together with the famed Joffrey Ballet for the company’s season opener of Gluck’s “Orphée et Eurydice,” seen Wednesday in the run’s second performance.
Those who came to see opera, therefore, should not have been surprised to see mostly a ballet break out because that was the aim of director and choreographer John Neumeier, the Wisconsin-born director of the Hamburg Ballet since 1973. Neumeier doubles as the ballet director for the Hamburg State Opera, where this co-production will land in February 2019 after it first goes to L.A. Opera next March.
The Lyric and the Joffrey announced plans over the weekend of a much longer partnership than this run of “Orphee,” with the ballet shifting its performances to the Civic Opera House permanently in 2020. It is notable that Lyric and ballet aren’t really strangers, with famed Balanchine ballerina Maria Tallchief previously serving as the company’s ballet director.
Kicking off with a Bang
Neumeier was working with Gluck’s 1774 Paris version and the director chose a modern setting in which Orphée, played by a tenor in Dmitry Korchak, is a ballet instructor and Eurydice one of his students. An argument ensues between the two in the studio as they rehearse “The Isle of the Dead,” based on the Arnold Bocklin painting seen at the start.
A miffed Eurydice huffs off in anger and before you know it, a car crash is seen and the heroine is killed. The circumstances of the accident are abrupt and a bit unclear, with the deceased Eurydice departing wearing a wedding dress. The inconsolable Orphée retreats to a park bench and is comforted by Amour, played as an assistant at the ballet company (?) in the form of soprano Lauren Snouffer. Amour convinces Orphée to visit the Underworld.
Hades & Elysium Highlighted by Joffrey Dancers
Neumeier waved his balletic wand to great effect in the second act, as devils with snakes coming out of their heads tormented the devastated Orphée in Hades. Elysium was an angelic chamber full of what the director called mystical dwellers clad in white. Extended ballet scenes with no music provided an interesting twist.
Those in the audience longing at this point to hear more of the terrific voices on stage were finally rewarded in the final act with Korchak and Andriana Chuchman in Orphée and Eurydice’s thrust and parry. It contained an unintentional moment of levity upon Eurydice’s death because of how she fell backward into awaiting arms upon the fatal glance of Orphée.
Korchak marked a worthy Lyric debut with an affecting “J’ai perdu mon Eurydice.” The Russian left the entire crowd feeling his pain with his lament of “ma douleur” and received some well-deserved extended applause. His pain for the loss of his lover was felt throughout with a consistent facial expression of pure emotional distress.
Chuchman is a Ryan Opera Center alumnus who will also perform Eurydice next summer in a different production in St. Louis. It is becoming commonplace for Lyric to turn to singers they have helped develop for lead roles and the soprano showed that she is clearly on the upswing. The tension of how the couple’s relationship ended in the studio was felt in the anger put forth in her singing when Orphée declined to look at her. Her courage was on display as well in seamlessly fitting in as a dancer among the top-notch Joffrey professionals in an experience that had to be nerve-wracking.
Snouffer made the most of her Amour, although why she wore a tomboyish outfit featuring jeans was difficult to decipher.
Bocklin’s painting resurfaces in the backdrop after Amour returns to tell Orphée that his Eurydice will live on in his heart in his ballet; alas our heroine isn’t restored to life. It’s here that the ending is a bit muddled with more ballet on tap after what seemed like the climactic moment, but it’s an indulgence that doesn’t take away from the overall work.
Eighteenth-century music is considered a specialty for conductor Harry Bicket and it was easy to see why. His handling of the Lyric orchestra along with the pauses for the lengthy dance scenes resulted in an absolutely enchanting night of music. For all the ballet and action on stage, one could have closed his or her eyes and listened to Gluck’s music along with the excellent Lyric chorus in the pit and come away completely satisfied.
Gluck’s “Orphée et Eurydice” is one of opera’s most important works because of its subsequent influence and Neumeier’s vision of it as a Gesamtkunstwerk through ballet is clear. While the amount of dance took some getting used to for this opera lover, the sheer tranquility and beauty of listening to Gluck carried the proceedings.