Chicago Opera Theater goes audaciously aquatic with “Orpheus”

Sun Nov 03, 2013 at 11:22 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Valerie Vinzant and Todd Palmer in Chicago Opera Theater's production of Ricky Ian Gordon's "Orpheus and Euridice." Photo: Liz Lauren
Valerie Vinzant and Todd Palmer in Chicago Opera Theater’s production of Ricky Ian Gordon’s “Orpheus and Euridice.” Photo: Liz Lauren

There’s a first time for everything and Chicago Opera Theater’s presentation of Ricky Ian Gordon’s Orpheus and Euridice in a Chicago Park District swimming pool is the only opera performance in memory where one worried about artists being affected by chlorine.

Chicago’s alternative opera company needed a success after the hapless revisionist staging of Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco (Joan of Arc) presented in September. General director Andreas Mitisek seemed to offer a mea culpa of sorts for that stumble in his opening remarks Friday night encouraging COT audiences to take a cue from Orpheus’s fate and to look forward and not look back.

Though the conceit of presenting a musical performance in a swimming pool might seem gimmicky on the surface, Friday night’s performance at the Eckhart Park Pool on the near West Side was an almost unqualified success. The complex logistics came off without a hitch and COT’s Orpheus offered that rare artistic experience, a performances that seemed to effortlessly transcend the boundaries between music, opera, and dance. With this audacious and surprisingly effective show, Mitisek’s company is back in the winning column.

Gordon’s Orpheus and Euridice is not an opera but a kind of extended meditation for clarinet and voice of the ill-fated mythic couple, in which the instrumentalist takes on the role of Orpheus and the soprano Euridice. In his introduction, Gordon said the inspiration came in part from the 1959 Marcel Camus film Black Orpheus, and the trauma of the death of his partner Jeffrey from AIDS, which brought a raw personal dimension to the Orphic idea of art being created out of suffering.

As with most COT productions, Mitisek first presented his literally immersive staging of Gordon’s intimate cycle at Long Beach Opera in 2008 and 2010. The current performances are a co-production between COT and the Chicago Park District’s “Classics in the Parks” program. Clarinetist Todd Palmer, who commissioned the work, again took the role of Orpheus as in Long Beach.

The Eckhart Park Pool on west Chicago Avenue is about a third the size of the Olympic pool used in the California performances but the smaller scale works to the advantage of this intimate work. Greek statuary set the Classical milieu and the audience was arrayed along three sides of the pool, which doubled as the River Styx.

Orpheus and Euridice is one of Gordon’s finest inspirations, a work that offers interpretive opportunities and bravura moments for clarinetist and singer, and embraces a variety of expression in graceful, searching music that is emotive and clearly deeply felt.

Mitisek wisely presented the two-part, 70-minute work in a single span. His direction calls for Palmer and soprano Valerie Vinzant to be more or less in constant motion, whether traversing the pool in a small boat or walking along the pool’s edge.

Palmer’s playing was remarkable, especially considering the staging challenges, including, at one point, standing in the boat and playing as it is violently rocked from side to side. The clarinetist floated a warm rounded tone in lyrical moments and tackled the bursts of agitated virtuosity with bracing clarity and even articulation.

A former COT young artist, Valerie Vinzant was an equally assured presence as Euridice. The soprano’s tone turned a bit glassy under pressure, but she sang with feeling and sensitivity throughout and proved an aptly light-footed and graceful physical presence.

The sextet of dancer-actor-swimmers that amplify the action and serve as unobtrusive boat guides fleshed out the staging nicely, particularly Matt Messina and Kate Smith as doubles for the doomed lovers.

COT’s Orpheus and Euridice offers a rare up-close and personal experience with the artists often coming within a foot or two of the first row of audience members. Apart from one fleeting moment of electronic feedback, the performance was without glitches, with the necessary amplification discreet and skillfully done. The only fitful distractions were noisy hallway conversations and slamming doors audible to those sitting near the exit.

Mitisek’s direction of his own production was virtually faultless, scrupulously rehearsed, and aided immensely by David Lee Bradke’s evocative lighting. Conducting the chamber ensemble in a corner of the room (the Metropolis String Quartet and bassist Timothy Shaffer) from the piano, Stephen Hargreaves led a flexible yet responsive performance.

Orpheus and Euridice will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Friday and November 10. Admission is free but seating is limited.; 312-704-8414.

Matt Messina and Kate Smith in COT's "Orpheus and Euridice." Photo: Liz Lauren
Matt Messina and Kate Smith in COT’s “Orpheus and Euridice.” Photo: Liz Lauren

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