Barry's Dance Review

The Top Ten Reasons I Qualify as a Dance Reviewer


Presented by the UCLA Center for the Performing Arts,
Wiltern Theatre, Los Angeles, 4/27/96
$13 - $45


An opera in three acts by
Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) 1762 Vienna version
Mark Morris, Director and Choreographer
Christopher Hogwood, Conductor

Michael Chance/Orfeo.......Dana Hanchard/Euridice.......Christine Brandes/Amor

The grown-up bad boy of modern dance arrived in town with a large assembly of talent to mount a classy production of a classic myth. The controversial choreographer has an adoring following and vociferous detractors, (Check out the alt.arts.ballet Newsgroup) however, none can deny his ability to tackle an ambitious project and deliver a must-see event.

In this work he's taken an 18th Century Viennese opera-lite based on the Greek myth of Orpheus--a simple emotion-drenched fable of love lost, found, lost and found once more--and filtered it through his uniquely skewed post-modern sensibility. The challenge here was to also honor the intent of the composer-librettist team by seamlessly integrating the music, drama, and dance elements.

The story, for those who slept through Mythology 1a: Poet/singer Orfeo, son of Apollo and Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, weds the dryad (a wood nymph, as we all know) Euridice. A snake bite turns wedding into funeral. In the depths of sorrow, Orfeo is visited by Amor, with word from Jove, that will allow him to retrieve Euridice from the land of the dead. The catch: He must not look at her, nor explain why, or lose her forever. Armed only with his trusty lyre, he placates the guardians of Hades and finds his love. On the way back, Euridice can't understand why he won't look at her and panics, in desperation, he...yep, you guessed it. Grief stricken, he is about to kill himself, but Amor snatches away his dagger and tells him he has proved his devotion and will be reunited with Euridice and live happily ever after (in this version).

For a radically different take on the same myth, check out Black Orpheus, the 1959 Best Foreign Film Oscar and Cannes winner. It tells the tale against the background of Carnival in Rio with wonderful music by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luis Bonfa.

The striking set, by Adrianne Lobel, was composed of acres of floor to rafters white diaphanous curtains hung from tracks. This created an ethereal or underworld ambiance that could be swiftly cleared for the dance sections. On the sides, near the front, were risers where the tuxedo & gown clad members of the Handel & Haydn Society Chorus stood for their parts. At center-rear was a funeral bier, flanked by sky-high pairs of delicate white ionic columns. The lighting was effectively bright and dramatic.

The opening scene had the dance company, as nymphs & shepherds mourning Euridice's death. My initial impression was that perhaps Mr. Morris has too much embraced his native Seattle's rock esthetic; his male dancers sported the grunge look. They gave shepherds a bad name. The dark woodsy tunics, however, accented the movement: a pleasing blend of quirky Morris-esque balletic style and poses taken from Attic works of art. The evening's subtitle could well have been, forgive me, "Ode on a Grecian Yearn."

On a now empty stage, Orfeo sings an aria, one of inconsolable grief and vows to challenge the gods and rescue his love. Mr. Chance is a world-class countertenor, apparently the closest tonal range to the original alto castrato. To this admittedly uneducated ear, despite being strong, clear, and expressive, his voice was not all that thrilling. I was looking forward to, and not disappointed by, the Morris trademarks of men in frilly skirts, same sex partnering, females lifting males; the whole expanding vocabulary of tradition-tweaking gender-bending. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer a little vocal contrast in my duets with a soprano heroine.

Orfeo's aria is interpreted by a lone male dancer on the opposite riser with extravagant gestures of bereavement, longing, and loss. What was disconcerting was that the dancer would complete a phrase & exit, return for another, leave, return, leave, return. This device diluted one of the opera's more emotional moments.

In Act 2, the dancers, as furies and shades that guard the Gates of Hades, attempt to stop Orfeo with a shifting variety of blocking lines, trapping circles, flailing arms, and menacing moves. Yikes, they were scary! When he reaches beautiful, peaceful Elysium the costumes are white with gold trim. The movement was lyrical, hippie free-form, dainty at times, in response to the Baroque melodies. Sometimes Morris "Mickey Moused" the choreography, providing gestures to every musical accent, lest we miss the point. Was that a stylistic choice or just not trusting his audience? The music, throughout, was a pleasure. Gluck's score, while not a memorable triumph, propels the action with each carefully created mood. Mr. Hogwood and the Handel & Haydn Society Orchestra provided a wonderful, "historically informed" performance.

Act 3 begins with a duet as Ofeo attempts to lead Euridice back to Earth. Ms Hanchard has a great voice and made the most of the melodramatic libretto. As Amor, Ms Brandes, had all the fun. Her sweet charming voice, complimented her teasing, impish personality. After removing the dagger from Orfeo's hand, in Morris-esque comedy relief, she scratches her back and cleans her nails with it. (I couldn't believe what the LA Times reviewer wrote: "And as Morris probably intended, the audience laughed..." Probably?!) Who says opera has to be stodgy.

The grand finale is set in the Temple of Love as the three principles, the nymphs and shepherds celebrate the ecstatic couple's return. It's party-time and Morris pulled out all the stops. There were folk dance frolics, with lots of leaps and lifts; At moments, it was neo-classical swing time with what looked to me like a two-man jitterbugging team. Time flies when one is having fun and, as opera-time goes, this production soared on wings of Icarus.

Footnotes: The Showbill program provided by UCLA was a great bonus. In addition to the usual info, it contained, not only a synopsis (all one really needed to follow the story), but the complete libretto which was fascinating to read before of after the performance. There were also extensive program notes which put the opera into historical context. It was an education.

The incomparable maestro-diva himself, resplendent in red silk shirt and black flowing curls, paraded majestically around the orchestra section before each of the three acts.

Loved it!
It was great!
I was expecting Swan Lake.
Did you know it was an opera?
They seemed heavy-footed.
There was too much movement.

© 1996 by B. L. Weiss


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