Choreographer turns opera hero into a choreographer

Dmitry Korchak as Orphee and Lauren Snouffer as Amour in Lyric’s “Orphee et Eurydice.”

Classical Music Critic

What: “Orphée et Eurydice”
Where: Lyric Opera, 20 N. Wacker Dr.
When: Through Oct.15

Lyric Opera of Chicago opened its season Saturday night with Gluck’s “Orphée et Eurydice,” the 1774 Paris version which, unlike Gluck’s original, is in French (not Italian), features a tenor (not a castrato), and adds considerable dance music. Taking on the dancing is the Joffrey Ballet, making this the first joint effort of Lyric and the admired dance company.

There are many things to love in this “Orphée.” First among them is the splendid Lyric debut of tenor Dmitry Korchak. His is the primary voice throughout the opera, and he acquits himself marvelously. His singing is plangent and poignant and he colors his voice to create nuanced elements of many emotions, from grief to joy, with apparent ease.

Andriana Chuchman is a gorgeous Eurydice with creamy, dreamy sound. Lauren Snouffer as Amour sings with clarity and lovely presence.

Offstage for the entire opera, the Lyric Opera Chorus makes its presence known with radiant ringing throughout, adding alluring texture to the performance. Harry Bicket leads the orchestra with equal parts refinement and joy. The Joffrey dancers add zing and zest throughout. Their costumes are at times as beautiful as their movements.

We have yet again another update-and-resetting of the story. I’m always willing to give this a whirl, but director and choreographer (and set designer and costume designer and lighting designer) John Neumeier has come up with the most shallow and lazy concept I’ve seen in many long years. Choreographer Newmeier has made his Orphée a choreographer. A sensitive one, who wears soft shirts and the stereotypical flowing scarf. Eurydice is his wife and yet another dreary stereotype: the temperamental diva. Even though Neumeier has turned the hero into himself, he strangely never does anything with this transformation. There is never a point where this conceit yields insight or added depth to the story. It is nothing more than a trite and trivial frame. In this contemporary setting, Amour is an assistant to Orphée, a dramaturg perhaps, who walks him through the myth in the hope that Orphée can find closure. I erred when I said Newmeier brought nothing whatever new to the story. Choreographer Newmeier finds that Amour is in love with the choreographer. 

It’s not enough that Newmeier takes fascinating figures and turns them into taudry targets for the like of TMZ. He also decides that the composer shouldn’t get to write the ending to his own opera. And so the head of the Hamburg Ballet instructs Christoph Willibald Gluck: Eurydice must actually die in the end, although it must be as confusing and unclear as possible.

The sets are primarily a series of flats on wheels. They combine linearly to create a long wall, or at right angles, to create partial rooms, and so on. Often this works really well. But one recurring use is the creation of multiple walls of mirrors – perhaps to mimic those of classical ballet training salons. These mirror panels always work against the production. They adhere to their scaffolding so precariously that the most reliable source of tension in the production is the possibility that one of the mirrors will collapse upon someone on stage. They also serve to blind the viewers as the mirrors twist and turn and project the footlights out into the eyes of the audience. Additionally, these mirrors repeatedly show us the off-stage video displays of conductor Harry Bicket. I found this interesting but it drew me outside of the story and into the sphere of “did they really rehearse and approve this?”

The ability of these wheeled walls to revolve and move fluidly added to the action, but they had their limitations. Elysium, for example, resembled the most conventional and only all white designs of Mies Van der Rohe.

And while the dancing is unquestionable executed with beauty and skill, at times it is difficult to understand how it relates to the story. As I’m no expert, my confusions are those of a novice. For example, there’s lots and lots of running back and forth; perhaps that’s to build tension. One of the Cerberus dancers actually moons the audience! Maybe that’s irony in ballet. 

In any event, the music is great. The fine singers work well together, and the chorus and orchestra perform at the highest level. The sound alone transports you and will affect you even after the curtain falls. The music is that beautiful. And if you are a choreographer, you will absolutely love the choreographer-centric, all-women-love-the-choreographer approach of this production.