Orpheus, mythology’s greatest musician, has fascinated artists for centuries from Poussin to Rilke to Cocteau to Balanchine to Tennessee Williams. But opera composers have naturally held him most dear; even the genre’s first surviving work involved him although Jacopo Peri’s Euridice was named after his doomed wife. 

So it’s understandable that Matthew Aucoin, still in his twenties, might be drawn to this irresistible figure, yet his short cantata The Orphic Moment left a curious impression thrust into the third act of Gluck’s grave, magisterial Orfeo ed Euridice in the Orphic Moments mash-up starring Anthony Roth Costanzo presented Sunday by MasterVoices at the Rose Theater.

Aucoin’s 2014 composition for high voice, solo violin and chamber ensemble was initially married to the Gluck two years ago in a small-scale presentation at National Sawdust.

I didn’t attend that version but this time we got most of the original 1762 Vienna Orfeo until the moment just before Orfeo looks back at Euridice whom he has retrieved from Hades. Then abruptly the lighting changed and Aucoin’s fifteen-or-so-minute piece began as violinist Keir GoGwilt and dancer Bobbi Jean Smith entered.

After it, Gluck returned with the recitative leading to Orfeo’s fatal glance followed by the celebrated lament “Che faro senza Euridice.” Amore then as usual returned to stop Orfeo from suicide and breathed life into Euridice; however, Gluck’s lieto fine was banished—the revivified Euridice departed with Amore leaving the devastated Orfeo as Aucoin chimed in again with crashing dissonant chords for the final moments.

While one sympathized with Aucoin’s urge to add his voice to the enormous Orpheus canon it was difficult to figure out just how his work supplemented/complemented Gluck’s. On its own The Orphic Moment revealed a striking gift for vocal writing—I missed Aucoin’s opera about Walt Whitman Missing Crossing last fall at the Brooklyn Academy of Music—and orchestral color.

But 250-year aural jolt surely left many scratching their heads particularly as the surtitles chose to not relay the otherwise incomprehensible English text. After the performance one disgruntled matron loudly bitched the entire elevator ride down about how she understood just “two words!”

Aucoin’s most provocative contribution might have come in his program notes where he proposed that Orpheus deliberately looked back at Eurydice in order to lament again as it’s as a singer that he achieved his ultimate apotheosis.

However, one revelation was provided by the inclusion of the Aucoin in Orphic Moments: Costanzo truly excels at contemporary music. My previous encounters with the countertenor in 18th century music have left me unsatisfied as the voice lacks the roundness and finish one wants in Handel…or Gluck.

Though his boyish demeanor lacked gravitas, scattered moments of Orfeo were lovely and moving, particularly his second and third pleadings in Hades “Mille pene” and “Men tiranne.” He neatly differentiated the verses of the extended first-act lament and showed off a fine trill but too often the tone turned tense and harsh particularly in faster recitatives and at louder dynamics.

But with the arrival of An Orphic Moment he was transformed and the voice soared with a gripping commitment I hadn’t sensed earlier.

While I admire Costanzo’s intrepid entrepreneurial spirit in gathering together this project and last summer’s Handel at National Sawdust, the Aucoin confirmed my impression from recordings of López’s Bel Canto and Heggie’s Great Scott that Costanzo’s niche may be in music written in the past few decades rather than the usual baroque countertenor rep. My biggest take-away from Sunday was that I now can’t wait to hear him in Philip Glass’s Akhnaten due the season after next at the Metropolitan Opera.

The forces involved in Sunday’s Manhattan premiere had grown exponentially since National Sawdust; in addition to the 130-member MasterVoices Chorus and five dancers, Ted Sperling led the Orchestra of St. Luke’s whose roster according to the program numbered 34 but there must have been at least one more as I also heard an unnamed harpsichordist.

The enormous chorus sometimes made a mighty noise but mostly they turned Gluck’s ravishing choruses into muddy blurs while Sperling’s heavy, plodding conducting brought to mind the ponderous performances of Gluck I’d thought we’d left decades ago.

It brought to mind my first Orfeo almost exactly thirty years ago at Carnegie Hall performed by the Oratorio Society of New York. Its huge orchestra and chorus made Gluck sound more of the 19th century than the 18th but at least that evening brought one enormous compensation: Janet Baker’s final performance in the US and last opera anywhere.

Luckily two glowing sopranos helped elevate the evening. Strutting about in a red jumpsuit, Lauren Snouffer’s sprightly Amore piped deliciously, ornamenting “Gli sguardi trattieni with sly aplomb while Kiera Duffy’s wrenching intensity imbued Euridice with a starling immediacy.

Never in my experience has a Euridice so vividly conveyed her despair at Orfeo’s apparent abandonment. Zack Winokur’s spare production (with everyone barefoot of course) which most often placed the chorus in three tiers of boxes behind the stage was at its best when Costanzo interacted with his arresting partners.

Winokur also provided the choreography of which there was little as the celebrated “Dance of the Furies” and “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” were not included. However there was an exquisite interlude as Costanzo entered Elysium and four male dancers repeatedly lifted and carried Orfeo about which beautifully conveyed his awe at his enchanted surroundings.

Marcus Doshi’s chiaroscuro lighting often strikingly evoked the horrors of Hades and Orfeo’s anguish at his sentence of being forbidden to look at his newly reclaimed wife. But the effectiveness of the stage darkness was undercut by the constant bright spotlight on Sperling so one’s attention was drawn as often to his shiny bald spot as to Duffy and Costanzo in duress.

Though Gluck’s Orfeo has a dizzying array of versions both in Italian and French, it has for decades been mostly identified with mezzo sopranos but this season in particular men—both countertenors and tenors—have staked their claims. This month besides Costanzo’s performances (one more remains, tonight at 7:00) two other celebrated countertenors stake their claim.

Philippe Jaroussky, whose recording of Orfeo is soon to be released on Erato, opens in Robert Carsen’s new production at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées on the 22nd.Jarroussky has also recently released La Storia di Orfeo, a CD devoted to earlier operatic settings of Orpheus including Monteverdi’s and Luigi Rossi’s.

And later this week Iestyn Davies sings Orfeo (for the first time?)in concert in London with La Nuova Musica.

Earlier John Neumeier’s new production of the tenor Orphée opened the season in Chicago with Dmitry Korchak (I believe this has been filmed for PBS but I thought Korchak terrible on the radio broadcast) and then traveled to LA with Maxim Mironov.

La Scala recently revived Covent Garden’s version for Juan Diego Florez. And I’ve heard whispers however that a mezzo may soon reclaim Orfeo—and in New York City no less!

Photo by Erin Baiano.