Review: Don’t look back

What: Chicago Opera Theater’s “Orpheus and Euridice” by Ricky Ian Gordon
Where: Eckhart Park Pool, 1330 W. Chicago Ave.
When: Through Nov. 10
Phone: 312-704-8414
Web: chicagooperatheater.org
Call for ticket prices

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

Greek myth isn’t what it used to be. And by that I don’t mean the stories have changed, only that we don’t turn to them much these days when every true story touched by the media or hungry writers is turned into a tale of great heroics or tragedy, whether the facts support such an approach or not.

So it was with some interest that I made my way to the Chicago Park District’s Eckhart Park pool Sunday night for a performance of a new telling of Orpheus and Euridice which hewed closely to the original story, but dressed it in contemporary attire.

Chicago Opera Theater and the Chicago Park District have combined forces to provide four free performances of American composer Ricky Ian Gordon’s 2001 work, “Orpheus and Euridice.” Clarinetist Todd Palmer turned to Gordon in the 1990s requesting a piece for clarinet, piano and voice which he could perform along with Schubert’s “Shepherd on the Rock.” Gordon describes himself as rudderless at the time, because his partner, Jeffrey Grossi, was dying. Gordon’s flash of insight, sometime later, was to re-tell Orpheus’s story, transforming this incomparable singer into a “pipe” player, and drawing Euridice’s demise as a slow and agonizing death from an unknown virus.

Gordon’s “Orpheus and Euridice” is a one-hour song cycle in two acts written for clarinet, soprano, piano and string quartet plus double bass. It premiered in 2001.

But its obvious theatricality meant that it would have another life as a staged work. Andreas Mitisek, general director of Chicago Opera Theater since June of 2012, has twice presented the work (2008 and 2010) with Long Beach Opera, where he’s been general director since 2003. He’s now brought it to Chicago, most importantly along with clarinetist Todd Palmer.

In both Long Beach and now in Chicago, Mitisek stages the piece in a pool, most obviously representing the River Styx, but it also seamlessly serves as the flowery meadow where the couple find love, their blissful home and even — with the use of the foggy effects of dry ice — the world of Hades.

Palmer, now a veteran of numerous performances of the work, displays an easy virtuosity, from the beginning easily establishing the clarinet’s voice as one splendid enough to serve as soloist and partner to a soprano. He shows no trepidation when performing in a small rowboat in the pool or while sitting on the shoulders of a mute actor who carries him across the water. More importantly, he does not fear musical understatement, never letting the spectacle infect his nuanced and gripping interpretation.

Soprano Valerie Vinzant brings both lightness and brightness to Euridice, embracing the playfulness of the music in the early scenes. Her character also serves as narrator, so that by the end she is recounting her own death, her faithful lover’s attempts to save her and her own second and final demise. Dressed simply yet beautifully in a flowing sun-yellow dress, she looks and sounds like joy itself.

Mitisek chose not to conduct this work but to serve as its director and production designer. Given his recent failure with Piazolla’s “Maria de Buenos Aires,” it would have been reasonable to expect melodramatic nonsense this time around. But Mitisek here is restrained, in spite of his splashy venue, and employs all the right touches. Four mute actors help the story along: sometimes literally by moving the boat, sometimes as characters who aid the storytelling, such as the doctors and nurses who tend to the dying Euridice. Their movements are beautifully stylized without prissiness, almost dancelike in their graceful foot positions, and with their gentle start-and-stop motions you have the idea of a frieze coming briefly to life. Mitisek heightens this effect with the use of statuary at one end of the pool. His nod to the ancient world is mingled with a modern flourish, as the statues are interspersed with video screens. These latter are effectively deployed only once, near the end, as Orpheus waits word for whether or not he can fetch Euridice back with him to their previous blissful existence. The screens flicker with static for an agonizingly long stretch before a single eye appears.

Gordon has long been known and admired for his work for voice, and anyone experiencing this piece will be glad to know that he abandoned his once tentative decision to write for Palmer something for piano and clarinet only. His musical language for clarinet and soprano is pleasing, and he accentuates this deftly with the ensemble. The piano is sparing but elegant, giving conductor-performer Stephen Hargreaves ample opportunity to lead the players. The Metropolis String Quartet and bass player Timothy Shaffer offer excellent support and embrace Gordon’s Copland-like writing superbly.

The production is simply marvelous, and this is true in spite of a few disappointments. Gordon’s text writing, even if informed by his own grief, is uninspired, sometimes marred by painful rhymes (“life” with “strife”), and he tries too hard in the very beginning to explain why Orpheus plays a clarinet instead of singing with a lyre.

Also, the production uses two mute actors (Matt Messina and Kate Smith) who double as Palmer and Vinzant. This has the effect of being at times confusing — Palmer and Vinzant themselves are constantly moving, not merely standing and performing in a corner — and nearly always slightly distracting.

But the strengths so outweigh these weaknesses so you come away thoroughly pleased with the results, even forgetting the lingering scent of stifling chlorine.