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Orpheus goes downtown

Marc-Antoine Charpentier came along at the wrong time for a composer of French opera. Lully had persuaded Louis XIV (his dancing partner) to give him a monopoly on composing stage music in France. One of the grandest dames about court, Mademoiselle de Guise, provided Charpentier a regular gig at her palace and an apartment over her stables for seventeen years. When he left, he worked for the Grand Dauphin, the king’s son, and for the Jesuits, for whom he produced oratorios like the currently much-revived David et Jonathas. But he didn’t produce much in the way of secular tragédie-lyrique—only two or three survive, notably a Médée and the abbreviated La descente de l’Orphée aux Enfers. Gotham Chamber Opera is presenting the New York stage premiere of the latter at St. Paul’s Chapel through Sunday, as part of Trinity Church’s annual Twelfth Night Festival.  

It is not clear whether what survives of Déscente is complete or if it is all that Charpentier composed of a longer libretto. Upset by the death of his bride, Euridice, on their wedding day, Orpheus, greatest of human musicians (his father, Apollo, being god of music, must be allowed a certain superior ability—he flayed Marsyas alive for questioning it, and I’m not going to take the risk), descends to the realm of the dead. There, he sings so beautifully that the souls in torment are comforted and the rulers of that kingdom, Pluton and Proserpine, give him back his bride, but only if he does not turn to look at her before they reach the surface of the earth. Happily, the couple depart—and the manuscript ends.

This may be just as well, as the myth ends sadly: Orpheus doubts the good faith of the gods, turns to look a moment too soon, and back the girl goes. Gluck tacked on a happy ending to his better-known version, but that has never made any sense: We can’t get our dead back, no matter how much we love them, no matter how beautifully we sing. Time doesn’t go in reverse.

Charpentier gives us about an hour’s worth of music, too little for a satisfying evening. This was the major flaw of the Gotham presentation, which otherwise boasted the elegant stage values (Andrew Eggert, stage director), witty use of an existing landmark (Julia Noulin-Merat, scenic designer; Mark Stanley, lighting), handsome looks (Vita Tzykun, costumes) and attractive orchestral sound that are generally features of this company. But it was an appetizer but left us hungry for a main event. There are operas that last an hour and leave the spectator musically fulfilled and emotionally spent, but the incomplete arc of La Déscente is not one of them. It is a tease, requiring something more, a partner on the bill, curtain-raiser or closer, to complete the theme or vary it as the case may be.

The vocal star of the performance, for me, was the Proserpine, Mary Feminear, a mezzo with dark, dulcet tones and a technique full of seductive character—she only had five minutes to show off (no one but Orpheus had much more), and I’m eager to know what else she can do. The other women, notably Jamilyn Manning-White as Euridice, made less of an impression. The men fared better: Daniel Curran’s wan but determined, well-phrased Orphée, Jeffrey Beruan as a tender-hearted Pluton, and the suffering victims of Tartarus revitalized by Orpheus’s singing, enthusiastically depicted by Cullen Gandy, Gerard Michael d’Emilio and John Brancy, who doubled as an encouraging Papa Apollon. These three filled the chapel with harmonious lamentation, obviating any need for a chorus. Neal Goren led an orchestra of eight (three gambas outgunning two violins!) and the graceful drama proceeded at a fine, hearty pace.

Photo by Richard Termine.

39 comments

  • manou says:

    With apologies to John Yohalem for straying off the subject -- The Power Of Destiny is now uploaded on YouTube (try Intermezzo, too).

  • Hippolyte says:

    That Gotham is charging a top price of $125 (to sit in a pew) for this 50-minute incomplete opera soured me on the whole enterprise, especially in light of their unfortunate stab at another 17th century opera last year.

    I don’t believe “Descente” has an accent.

  • hawksmoor says:

    For those who would like to see how this opera should be done, for half the price (not to mention a companion piece of “La Couronne de Fleurs”, thus making a full evening), go to the Morgan Library in March when the Boston Early Music Festival is in town. Everything is exquisitely done--even the Sun King himself would be impressed. If Gotham keep this sort of thing up (see”Eliogabaldo”), they will be going the way of City Opera. (Frankly, the photos of their costumes look very High School Musical.)

    • butterfly mcqueen says:

      Were you there?

      I guess you think the photos from the Morgan Library’s website constitute great costume design. Sheets loosely draped around bodies.

      i was there. It was STAGED (not semi-staged, as the Morgan performances will be -- read CONCERT). It was beautifully produced, beautifully sung. And tickets could be had for $15, not only the top price you hold up as blasphemy.

      Gotham is a doing great work, and is not going the way of City Opera.

      ;

      • hawksmoor says:

        Depends on what you mean by THERE. I was there in plush-seated (not hard-pewed) Jordan Hall in June for the BEMF production, which semi-staged simply meant the orchestra was onstage and the singers and dancers (and chorus! a real chorus!) moved around them. So no, I didn’t bother to go to the Gotham, because they have irritated me in the past with their superciliousness, so unless they offer something with more allure, I’ll pass. The NY Times review, mentioning the “scrappy” costumes and the “faintly amateurish” dancing did not exactly inspire regret. Your trumpeting of the production sounds like the propaganda of someone either involved in it or related to someone who was. Come clean.

    • Krunoslav says:

      Costumes looked great in situ, and I did not find the dancing (given it was by singers) amateurish but apt — less intrusive than had it been the kind of specialist baroque troupe one sometimes sees. I really, really disliked ELIGABALO; this production was very pleasing.

  • butterfly mcqueen says:

    yes, you caught me. I’m Neal Goren.

    No, I’m simply someone who attends performances, Gotham and otherwise. I’ve just grown so weary of people here who offer advice about performances and productions they have never seen.

  • hawksmoor says:

    Apologize for increasing your weariness. Admit that I was wrong to diss one company when I haven’t seen that production, when all I REALLY wanted to do was call attention to something I HAD seen and thought others would enjoy. My bad. Still, the fact remains that if you want to see TWO Charpentier operas for the price of one, BEMF is the way to go. And I reiterate it is not just a “concert” (NOW who’s giving advice about things they have never seen?). Though alas, the dancing is in that “intrusive” baroque manner.

  • butterfly mcqueen says:

    Apology happily accepted! And I WILL go to see BEMF also :)

  • hawksmoor says:

    Thank god! Then my life has a purpose! (Will try to be more positive in the future.)