Opening night of the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 2017/18 season kicked off with Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice (Paris version), and included a first-time collaboration with the Joffrey Ballet.
As my plus-one noted, it looked like an opera broke out at a dance. Both aspects were well-executed in this modern interpretation of the short Greek myth: boy marries girl, girl is killed, boy uses artistic chops to attempt to pull her out of the underworld, boy disregards hellish-agreement-cum-Boston-the-band-song “Don’t Look Back,” boy loses girl.
Orphée, powerfully interpreted by warm Russian tenor Dmitry Korchak (in his Lyric debut; also the debut of this opera in this space), is a choreographer rehearsing his large, mostly brunette corps de ballet in his foreshadowing new work The Isle of the Dead, inspired by the Arnold Böcklin painting (one of the few pieces on the sparse set, designed by John Neumeier, who also created the costumes and lights, and directed and choreographed). The compact singer grasped the pathos of his surprisingly brief part, earnestly navigating his plaintive libretto, infusing the anger and grief accompanying a tragic loss as he thumbs through his company’s headshots, landing on his wife’s frozen photo.
Eurydice, Canadian soprano Andriana Chuchman, is his diva ballerina wife unexpectedly killed by a rogue automobile. She effectively transitions her clarion voice and assured movement into the afterlife, her fierce incarnate facade relaxing into her spiritual good night, most notably when she gracefully floats among the otherworldly dancers trailing a long white robe.
His butch assistant, the aptly named Amour, an engaging turn by American soprano Lauren Snouffer, suggests he go down under to bargain for his wife’s life. Wearing work boots, jeans and a hoodie, she’s the angel on his shoulder, comforting and encouraging her boss with her poignant arias. What the hell, he enters the gates, a parting of the dancers’ mirrors.
In Hades, signified by perhaps Charon’s upside-down boat, Orphée has his entrance blocked by dancing Furies, led by three black-fetish-clad dancers, who eventually acquiesce with a compelling silent phrase, in the now signature mix of classic forms and modern dance. A leitmotif of couples populates the stage and story, with the men frequently picking up the women, their bodies thrust upward, like Eurydice reaching for her former life, torsos and legs bent in a U shape.
Our hero then enters Elysium, where his bride sings about finding peace there, while surrounded by all-gender dancers wearing opaque white boxy tops and long culottes.
Act two is a rotating cycle of simple boxes, with solos and duets as the pair frets on how to navigate Orphée’s sudden silence and her frustration in his lack of loving, the terms of his agreement. They trade and share phrases in an attempt to create a new relationship.
The result is lovely and ambitious, but not integrated, perhaps because Neumeier had the Herculean task of devising almost all the art on the stage (the large off-stage choir and orchestra was conducted by Harry Bicket with Chorus Master Michael Black). It is a unified but segmented vision that should blossom, expand and entwine under the future planned collaborations of the opera and dance companies.
And escapism, even in a glorious space on a black-tie evening, is hard. When Eurydice is hit by a car in a crowd, I thought of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville. When Orphée arranges for a second chance at life, I recalled all the Black lives who get no such possible reprieve, no quarter. When the evening started, the well-voiced crowd sang the national anthem, which I didn’t know happened at the opera.
I took a knee, and, like Orphée, thought about the beloved dead.