Opera Theatre of St. Louis 2018 Review – Orfeo and Euridice: Johnson Cano Stellar in Probing Gluck’s Mythical Vision of Love

By Santosh Venkataraman

It has been a particularly heavy season at Opera Theatre of St. Louis, with an absolutely splendid run of Marc Blitzstein’s “Regina” and the emotionally-charged world premiere of Huang Ruo’s “An American Soldier.”

It was thus welcome that the final production to debut this season, Gluck’s “Orfeo and Euridice,” provided an uplifting ending. This production by director Ron Daniels, though sprinkled with some peculiarities, was a delightful version full of music and dance and was seen in the final week of the OTSL season at the same time the Opera America convention was in town.

Berlioz’s Version

Of the many versions of Gluck’s “Orfeo,” the one chosen for this production is a modified 1866 version of the 1859 re-creation by Hector Berlioz. The 1859 edition was cast with Orfeo as mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot as opposed to prior versions in which tenors and contraltos were employed.

Remaining consistent from this to the 1774 Paris version that is also often used is Gluck’s idea of transitioning from opera seria with his concept of a “reform opera” in which the simplicity of a work through music and a linear plot reigned supreme.  The effect to a listener is a more relaxed operatic experience and the implications changed the opera world.

Big Muddy Dancers Excel

With that simplicity in mind, Daniels’ production features an uncomplicated set design by Riccardo Hernandez that is true to Gluck’s ideal. Act one features a large likeness of the face of Euridice in soprano Andriana Chuchman and the remainder of the opera is a largely open space in which Orfeo, portrayed by Jennifer Johnson Cano, attempts to win back her lover. The finale features block letters spelling “Amore” as the lovers are reunited.

Notable to this work are the number of ballet scenes favored by the Parisian public with dancers from the Big Muddy Dance Company employed to an eye-pleasing effect. The dancers complemented Orfeo’s arduous journey through the Furies in Hades and Blessed Spirits in Elysium.

Striking among the dance scenes by choreographer Katarzyna Skarpetowska were that none were excessive as one would imagine when envisioning the tastes of French elites who demanded them back when this opera was created. Rather they were fluidly and tastefully mixed in with only the slight qualm of being used a bit too many times within the audience instead of just on stage.

The Leather Costume Conundrum

While a mythical time period is typically the setting for these characters, none is specified in this production. The idea may be that the themes of love and loss are universal and if there is a clue as to when the action takes place, it is revealed in the costumes.

Johnson Cano’s Orfeo is seen in a leather jacket, back pants and a tie, while Chuchman’s Euridice looks stunning in a flowing, white dress. The finale saw Johnson Cano sporting a different leather jacket and Chuchman in a sleeveless leather vest over a pink dress.

These outfits certainly didn’t detract from the performance though they did not add much either and the same can be said for eccentric, colorful costumes in a balloon-filled finale that was rousing nevertheless.

Star Turns

It was a bonus that the mezzo-soprano Johnson Cano was not only an accomplished artist worthy of carrying such a vehicle but also a native of the area. Her hometown appeal and down-to-Earth personality no doubt added to any local fervor for this production.

Johnson Cano delivers a vocally elegant Orfeo, deftly navigating her lines with appropriate color and showing no signs of strain.  Clear-sounding and purposeful, she received ovation after ovation and none bigger than after her heartfelt “J’ai perdu mon Eurydice” sung in English like every OTSL production over the loss of her lover.

While Chuchman loomed over the proceedings with her giant portrait, it was not until after intermission that the audience was treated to her lovely and enchanting voice.  Chuchman shined as Euridice this past season in a Lyric Opera of Chicago production that featured the 1774 Paris edition and her interpretation conveyed an ardent urgency to see her lover. There was an overall better chemistry between her and Orfeo in this production as the lovers forged a beguiling emotional connection.

Soprano Maria Valdes was clad in ripped jeans, a backwards baseball cap as well as wings as Amore.  Her voice and presence brought balance to the action in her company debut.

Absolutely Sublime

Gluck’s music sounded absolutely sublime under the baton of maestro Pierre Vallet in an understated fashion that allowed Johnson Cano to flourish. This production of “Orfeo and Euridice” was altogether charming to seasoned operagoers in town for the convention as well as newcomers to the art who were no doubt enthralled by the dance scenes.

While Opera Theatre of St. Louis has deservedly gained a reputation for new and rarely-performed works, this run proved that the company is versatile enough to also excel at the classics.  While the 43rd season is now over, the countdown to No. 44 under the leadership of new general director Andrew Jorgensen can only be anticipated.