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Lyre’s poker

The Underworld as corporate boardroom, Pluto a “suit,” the damned a bunch of clerks tapping away at laptops. When the lyre of Orpheus is heard (it never is seen, and it sounds like a recorder), rose petals turn up in hair or sleeves or pockets. The king of the dark realm is prepared to do almost anything to get rid of the intruder, even give him back his late bride (on conditions). The Maenads are a couple of riotous club ladies in bouffant ’dos and over-the-top pastel outfits, biting off a little piece of Mahler’s—sorry, Telemann’s.

Rebecca Taichman’s busy staging of Telemann’s 1726 opera Orpheus (or, Die wunderbare Beständigkeit der Liebe, The Wonderful Constancy of Love), for the New York City Opera, played in David Zinn’s spare sets and colorful costumes, tends to modern stage clichés but at least none of it gets in the way of, or unduly clutters, the familiar tale of the greatest musician of classical myth.  

Like most composers who on took the greatest musician of myth, Telemann did not find enough “story” in Orpheus’s attempt to regain his dead Eurydice, so he gussied it up with details: The lady is slain by a serpent sent by Orasia, the lovesick Queen of Thrace, who wants Orpheus for herself. When Orpheus, returning unsuccessful from his quest, still does not love her, Orasia sets the Maenads on him, then kills herself in maddened remorse. Plenty of opportunity for melodious reflection on love, hate, power and the whole damn thing.

Telemann doesn’t get nearly as much respect as his long and productive career merits (3000 works, dozens of genres). Fifty operas is not a vast number for the period (Handel composed forty, Alessandro Scarlatti eighty, Vivaldi said ninety), and only about nine of Telemann’s have survived in full score. But there is something of a flurry going on just now: friends I met at Orpheus on Tuesday had recently attended his operas in Hamburg, Magdeburg and at Yale.

Nor are they mere curiosities: Telemann was prolific because he was popular, and he was popular because he was good at his job, which included fifteen years running Hamburg’s Theater im Gänsemarkt, the largest and grandest public opera house in Northern Europe. (The rear wall of the theater backed on the River Elbe; at festival performances, the doors would open and a fireworks display would celebrate a lieto final. Eat your heart out, Robert Lepage.)

Orpheus, on first exposure, is full of melody and variety, not merely solo arias (and few those formal da capos, or perhaps most of the da capos were omitted), but extended scenes in which a character’s moods evolve from number to number until action is set moving. The libretto is in three languages—most German, some Italian, a soupçon of French—as copyright did not cover theater verse back then and Telemann (like Handel and Bach) stole from everybody. Orpheus includes duets and quartets, rare in Italian opera of the day, and there are canons of love and witty use of  the organ to evoke the solemn realm.

The City Opera presented this work in an out-of-the-way venue, the attractive and intimate 600-seat theater of the Museo del Barrio on Fifth Avenue, and gave it a cast of strong, young voices, though on the night I attended (May 15), the men took their sweet time to warm up.

Queen Orasia, the evening’s prima donna, was Jennifer Rowley, whose voice has the size and authority of a major spinto, as she demonstrated last month in the Verdi Requiem with the St. Cecilia Chorus at Carnegie Hall. Her instrument may seem a bit monochrome to some but it is a soprano of rare quality, full of power but never at the cost of beauty, surprising flexibility and great precision of ornament. Orasia is usually seething, and when she is flirtatious she’s usually lying; the contrast of mood suited Rowley very much better than, say, her rather glum Maria di Rohan at Caramoor.

Eurydice, who (as in all musical versions of the tale but Offenbach’s) has not nearly enough to do, was very prettily limned by Joélle Harvey, better at flirting before her death than at bemoaning afterwards. Michelle Areyzaga held her own as the queen’s confidante, whose arias might have gone unnoticed were Areyzaga not making vocal points. Meredith Lustig, as Cephisa, sang a luscious lover’s rejection; one hoped she’d change her mind just to secure another solo. Daryl Freedman gave a properly stern, “Notice this!” quality to the admonitions of a damned spirit.

Daniel Teadt looked handsome and acted agreeably as Orpheus, but his baritone seemed rather too light for the metaphorical weight the character must bear. One wanted a more certain technique, more immediate excitement. His anguished final scenes were rather more to the tragic point.

Victor Ryan Robertson sang Eurymedes with an ineffective tenor during the first act but redeemed himself with his supple sympathies in the last scenes, standing by his friend with grateful phrasing. Nicholas Pallesen had the build, the black hair, the witty delivery and the top-to-bottom security to suit Pluto, who is a bass of course. For all the corporate trappings, he didn’t make our ultimate destiny seem intolerable.

It was the producer’s conceit to have the Serpent who stings Eurydice incarnate Thanatos, Death, and have her take on many other duties, including succubus to Pluto (a role not devised by Telemann). Catherine Miller looked and moved attractively in this assignment, but I found her interpolations distracting at moments when the composer meant us to be paying closer attention to the music.

Indeed, throughout the evening there was an incompleteness of polish in the singing, a frequent breathlessness, fine scale passages that fell just sort of the proper top by nearly all the singers that I wondered not so much if these young, talented singers were up to the score as if the director had not overdone the demands of action, refusing to let anyone hold still and focus, create the drama there. Singing ought to come first. Had these singers done less, they might have performed better.

Gary Thor Wedow led the lengthy evening jauntily. Orpheus, given in two 80-minute acts, never felt long, and one heartily wished for further encounters in order to savor the score’s immediate delights.

The New York City Opera has won many laurels and a loyal audience over the decades with repertory “new” to New York; one can easily name a dozen works the Met undertook only after the “second” company had shown how rewardingly they could be produced, among them Makropoulos Case, Moses und Aron, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Capriccio, Anna Bolena, Doktor Faust, In the House of the Dead, Susannah, La Cenerentola, Idomeneo, La Clemenza di Tito and Giulio Cesare.

Cesare, indeed, was such a thundering hit that it led to a slew of City Opera Handel productions, eight I think (do I hear nine?). If the company hopes to renew itself, one obvious line surely is to hang on to that audience for Handel with new baroque explorations, and this they have done with Orpheus. Nothing else in this misbegotten NYCO season his impelled me to say, as I do now, Here’s to many more.

Photographs: Carol Rosegg

10 comments

  • Quanto Painy Fakor says:

    It would be interesting to know if the NYCO actually sold 600 seats per performance (house seats for press and other comps excluded), or did they have to paper the house.

  • m. croche says:

    Nice to see a solid consideration of Telemann’s work. I’m not an expert on the score, but I would guess the reason why the opera has few da capos is because the original libretto was based on a tragedie lyrique for Lully’s son, Louis. The livret conventions had a more rapid alternation of recits and little airs. Telemann would have had to adapt non-French musical styles to this more smoothly-flowing, less crudely articulated drama. This actually bears a distant resemblance to what Gluck did with Italian opera seria in his Orfeo. And it’s small wonder why Telemann would then have to turn to other languages to get some of the set pieces he felt were needed.

  • oedipe says:

    Like most composers who on took the greatest musician of myth, Telemann did not find enough “story” in Orpheus’s attempt to regain his dead Eurydice, so he gussied it up with details: The lady is slain by a serpent sent by Orasia, the lovesick Queen of Thrace, who wants Orpheus for herself.

    The Eurydice myth is just one -arguably the least interesting- of the myths involving Orpheus, and Telemann hints here at the “other” Orpheus, the Thracian prophet who preached the orphic religion. This Orpheus was eventually torn to pieces by crazed maenads, who buried his head on the island of Lesbos. The orphic religion, a secretive dionysian cult with pythagorean influences, is considered by some a precursor of early christianity. It was widely practiced in Thracia.

    • DonCarloFanatic says:

      Wow. Not “enough story,” and “arguably the least interesting.” A man goes all the way to hell to regain his dead wife and it’s not interesting? Today, people mostly content themselves with tearful demonstrations graveside and the occasional seance. I’d say Orpheus’ quest to undo the greatest mystery of life--death--is a biggie.

      Taking the Pythagorean view, though, I guess I see your point. Orpheus is a more noble or elevated being if a philosopher and master of musical harmony than a lover.

      • oedipe says:

        Well, firstly, the Thracian Orpheus was not merely a mythological character -though there is a whole mythology surrounding him- but probably a real philosopher and spiritual leader who lived around 600BC or thereabouts. Secondly, this Orpheus was not an “ivory tower” philosopher, but a preacher in the old sense of the word, preaching ways to “undo the greatest mystery of life-death” (as per the beliefs of those times). Selflessness is also a form of love…

    • Nerva Nelli says:

      “This Orpheus was eventually torn to pieces by crazed maenads, who buried his head on the island of Lesbos.”

      “…. ya know.”

      • operaguy says:

        And we think that opera fans are tough critics!

        • oedipe says:

          Whenever a star gets “torn to pieces” on Parterre, I cannot help but think of Orpheus, who was, after all, one of the first ever divos.

  • Hans Lick says:

    oedipe, in re: divo comment:

    I rise from a post-op bed of pain to say:

    ;) )))