On Stage: In the Spirit of Orpheus

I ascended into the underworld, transfixed by a petrified forest of marble obelisks stabbing the sky. Strangely enough, there were boy scouts guiding the way.

Actually this underworld was located in Allegheny Cemetery in Lawrenceville. I was there to see Orpheus guide his love, Euridice, out of a poetic hell in Opera Theater of Pittsburgh’s masterful collaboration with Attack Theatre, Ricky Ian Gordon’s “Euridice & Orpheus.”

So yes, I left the continuous bustle of Butler street and, after receiving my ticket, was immersed in the historic grandeur of this Pittsburgh landmark, full of mausoleums, grave markers, those sky-scraping obelisks and a canopy of ancient trees.

You do have to drive up a hill and find a parking place beside a tranquil lake, director Jonathan Eaton’s exquisite setting for his interpretation of Mr. Gordon’s song cycle.

A fairly large crowd had gathered round, despite dire storm warnings, and the performance turned into a perfect way to experience the close of day.

But first there was a prelude, Franz Schubert’s “Shepherd on a Rock,” where the clarinetist, John Culver, actually stood on a rock outcropping, giving the piece a whole new perspective. Across the water stood soprano Leah Dyer, and on the far shore was keyboardist Robert Frankenberry.

That made for a musical situation that was both intimate but aurally challenging, given the performers distance apart from each other. Yet they had a wonderful sense freedom  in this jewel of a chamber music work, steeped in the pastoral nature that made it a wonderful fit for this occasion.

Schubert’s “Shepherd” was organically connected to “Euridice & Orpheus” by the sense of longing and a wonderful sense of melodic line. Of course, Mr. Gordon’s work is better known as “Orpheus & Euridice,” but the title was altered, with permission of the composer, because OTP had presented the Gluck original earlier in the season.

This production was an intensely personal interpretation inspired by Mr. Gordon’s life experience with a partner who was dying of AIDS. He had been commissioned by clarinetist Todd Palmer and altered, not so much the story of Orpheus’ love for Euridice, but the emphasis. There was more of a life together before the heroine died of a virus. Still Orpheus followed her to the underworld to rescue her, but was bound by rules that he was not to gaze upon her face. He was unable to comply and lost her forever. The production won New York’s OBIE award in 2006.

Actually there was only one voice, that of Laura Knoop Very, who emoted the story virtually in its entirety. The role of Orpheus’ music was shared by clarinetists Ricky Williams and Mr. Culver, although I didn’t quite get the gist of that decision. They were joined by a string quartet and Mr. Frankenberry, who also conducted.

Attack Theatre dancers Dane Toney (Orpheus), Liz Chang (Euridice) and Ashley Williams (Spirit) fleshed out the story.

This particular piece has been staged in recital and in a swimming pool. I can’t imagine that there would be a better spot than this for the classic Greek myth. The characters magically appeared from behind tombstones or bushes and disappeared behind a natural dip in the landscape (Euridices’ death was particularly compelling).

It was all about staging — not necessarily dance or music as individual components — and in this respect, it was complete. Attack Theatre’s Peter Kope and Michele de la Reza were unusually restrained with the movement, keeping it attuned to the composer’s intent, but incorporating Grecian sculpture and yes the “spirit” of the Allegheny.

There were a few niggling details — much of the story took place on the far side of the lake and there were a few acoustic problems and one fire misfire on opening night. But there were so many more of the mystical variety.

How Ms. Williams flitted around the lake and casually leaned against a tombstone for a time. How the clarinetists physically engaged in the story. The attentiveness of the musicians at large. And how the surroundings became a part of the artistic fabric — ducks who, well, ducked into an adjacent pond during Mr. Williams’ entrance, another pair of feathered friends who seemed to provide a counterpoint to the story in the main lake, singing cemetery birds, a distant train.

This was an evening to reflect, enjoy and embrace art in an uncommonly artistic setting.   Take the time to visit.

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