‘Orfeo’ Brings Myth to Life

Courtesy of Claire Trevor School of the Arts

Courtesy of Claire Trevor School of the Arts

In this day and age, young people hear the word “opera” and their faces melt into a wonderfully fleshy mixture of hesitation, nausea and fear. No, we’re not quite 19th century youth culture.

But, Claire Trevor’s Music Department might just change our minds, one aria at a time.

Last Friday was opening night for the UC Irvine Symphony Orchestra’s rendition of “Orfeo ed Euridice,” Christoph Gluck’s magnum opus and pillar of any operatic repertoire. A libretto, or transcription of the opera, was provided and was edited by Anna Abert and Ludwig Finscher. The story is simple enough and familiar to most everyone. Based off the Greek myth of Orpheus, the story opens with the title characters who are newlyweds deeply in love. For no other reason than to live up to his name, Hades kills Euridice and drags her to the underworld. Orfeo (after spending the entirety of Act I sobbing), strikes a deal with Amore, the deity of surprise love. Here’s a good rule of thumb: never bargain with a god, especially if you’re a Greek hero. Orfeo is allowed to venture into the underworld to rescue his love, but cannot lay his eyes on her or tell her about his curse. If he breaks these conditions, Euridice remains dead. So, he rushes into action and finds her in Elysium. Euridice is deeply insecure and thinks that Orfeo won’t look at her because he’s cheated. She collapses in a jealous hysteria. Orfeo, in a fit of passion, looks at her, and Euridice dies again, as promised. But of course, love conquers all and Euridice pulls a (plot-convenient) Harry Potter and is revived through the mercy of Amore.

So how did Artistic Director Darryl Taylor dust off this 250-year-old classic? By stripping it bare, of course. Props went as follows: two chairs, Euridice’s silk cloth, and a black-clad gentleman with noteworthy upper body strength (aka Hades, who literally lifts the dead Euridice off to stage right, which of course is the Underworld). Costumes were simple: a suit for Orfeo, a white dress for Euridice, and a red number on Amore. Presumably, this is to highlight the cast’s vocal talent, and there is a ton of it to show. In fact, Taylor drew so much focus to the singers’ voices that he completely skipped the ballets that the libretto promised. The minimalism was a bit disappointing, and that disappointment nagged at the back of my mind for the whole ninety-minute production.

Courtesy of Bryan Pollock

Courtesy of Bryan Pollock

MFA student Bryan Pollock dazzles as the hero Orfeo, with a countertenor that was initially alarming, but ultimately captivating. It was  a much-appreciated throwback to the days when they used to castrate prepubescent singers to keep that silky smooth high pitch. Simpler times, man. I digress. In any case, Pollock’s countertenor displayed his great control, charisma and power. And it blended astoundingly well with Melissa McCann’s rich soprano. Her Euridice was sublimely acted, and her arias articulate and moving. Only McCann and Pollock could make a lovers’ spat (via duet) sound so pretty. For opening night, Allison Zema played Amore. Though her performance fun and her soprano lilting, her red dress couldn’t save her from being overshadowed by the leading duo, and her trio of  nymphs only bogged down her stage presence. The chorus was strong, though, and that backbone held the soloists together.

Conductor Stephen Tucker led the symphony with an adept wrist. He did Gluck’s score justice and, hey, the man’s got rhythm. The orchestra brought Elysium itself to the bare stage under his direction. Speaking of which, the orchestra did not disappoint. I only wish the acoustics of the theatre could have captured the nuanced swelling of the harp and strings.

UCI’s Music Department has some strong diaphragms to offer, and it’s all right under our noses. If you get the chance, check out a UCI opera performance.

Just leave the singing to the performers. As I left the theatre, my fellow opera-goers decided that you really could learn through osmosis, and they went to belting Orfeo. Let’s just say, if I were Euridice, I would’ve stayed across the river Styx.