On Tuesday, the San Francisco Opera unleashed the last show of their fall Season with a bang, presenting an extraordinarily out-of-this-world production of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s revolutionary opera Orfeo ed Euridice, which perfectly married Gluck’s gorgeous score with beautiful singing, ballet, breakdancing, Cirque du Soleil-type of spectacle, and one sensational Polish countertenor Jakub Józef Orlinski!

Gluck had long been seen as the Father of Modern Opera, or more specifically, Father of Reform Opera, and Orfeo ed Euridice had been touted as the first example of his operatic reforms. Inspired by Francesco Algarotti‘s 1755 Essay on the Opera, Gluck wanted to bring opera seria back to basics, where all the various elements of an opera—music (both instrumental and vocal), ballet, and staging—had to be subservient to the overriding drama.

Being in Vienna surrounded by kindred souls—including the head of the court theatre Count Giaco  mo Durazzo, librettist Ranieri de’ Calzabigi, choreographer Gasparo Angiolini and the castrato Gaetano Guadagni (who created the role Didymus in Handel’s oratorio Theodora more than a decade prior), Gluck was sufficiently equipped and empowered to realize his vision, and on October 5, 1762 he premiered Orfeo ed Euridice for Emperor Francis I with those four luminaries as part of the creative team.

The importance of Orfeo ed Euridice couldn’t be stressed enough, as it had never left standard repertoire and many different versions—both by Gluck himself (the 1762 Vienna (Italian) version and the 1774 Paris (French) version) and other composers (most notably Hector Berlioz’s 1859 French version for Pauline Viardot)—had been created to accommodate various types of voices for the central role of Orpheus. Gluck’s original 1762 Vienna version were used for this particular performance, with the most significant cut was the extensive Act 3 Scene 3 ballet before the final Chorus.

Historically, SF Opera had only staged any versions of Orfeo ed Euridice once in 1959, where Blanche Thebom, Lucine Amara and Joan Marie Moynagh participated in Dino Yannopoulous’ staging, conducted by Silvio Varviso. The only other occurrence was in 1995, when the starry cast of Jennifer Larmore, Dawn Upshaw and Alison Hagley performed Berlioz’s French version in one night only concert conducted by then Music Director Donald Runnicles.

Director Matthew Ozawa, working closely with choreographer Rena Butler (in her first ever operatic engagement), put the dance as the central character of his interpretation, as he explained in his Director’s Notes:

Two elements comprise our production: Orpheus’ memories of Eurydice and the terrain of his mind. Because emotions and relationships can be so dynamic, we investigate Orpheus and Eurydice’s relationship through richly athletic dance. The lovers are doubled by dancers and each Orpheus and Eurydice couple represent a distinct phase in their journey.

To depict the landscape of Orpheus’ mind, we collaborated with physicians from the University of California San Francisco to investigate brain images of individuals who experienced trauma. As a result, every projection we use is made up of brain scans or pictures of neurons and neural pathways. This rich visual tapestry displays our neurobiology, the dance depicts the memory landscape, and the music the emotional journey.

Ozawa’s ambitious plan to explore Orpheus’ stages of grief was fully realized by his creative team, chief of all set and projection designer Alexander V. Nichols. Nichols placed the action on top of domed turntable with the aforementioned brain scans projected on top of it, setting up the scene that at the same time eerie and beautiful. I was advised to select seats on Grand Tier level for this production, and I was grateful that I took that advice (I wasn’t sure how much of that stunning projection was visible from the Orchestra level)!

Upon that gorgeous canvas, Yuki Nakase Link showered the set with soft, nature-inspired lighting, with the brightest one (resembling sunlight) was reserved for Amore’s scenes. The combination of both forces created a spectacular mise-en-scène, so alien yet so familiar. Coupled with the busy actions on that set, the lighting perfectly depicted the landscape of Orpheus’ grieving mind, so much so that at times I wondered if the opera were intended to happen entirely inside Orpheus’ head!

For this physically demanding show, costume designer Jessica Jahn dressed the three central roles in simple tunic-like costumes in bold colors; sleeveless bright red for Orpheus, short-sleeve navy blue for Eurydice, and again, sleeveless bold yellow adorned with gold necklace with yellow tails for Amore, as she came down from the ceiling in a swing. The three pairs of dancers that doubled (or tripled, to be precise) Orpheus and Eurydice wore similar getups as them, albeit in different shades of red and blue respectively.

The colors employed by all the dancers (including Orpheus and Eurydice) plus the fact that they danced in formation during the joyful Overture brought to mind Morris’ legendary interpretation  of Handel’s pastoral ode L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, and that brief scene seemed to symbolize Orpheus and Eurydice’s happy moment together … before grief permeated the stage for the Chorus’ opening number “Ah, se intorno”.

For the Chorus, Jahn suggested a sense of the communal with similarly styled clothes in uniform beige color in Act 1, placed them under black cloaks to represent the Furies, and—in the most haunting usage of fashion in the opera—covered them with sheer shrouds bearing the images and writings of the departed family members of the creative team for the Elysian Fields scene. It was extremely gratifying to see how a small, well-thought change in costuming could bring dramatic effects to the whole production!

However, it couldn’t be overstated how much Butler’s role in shaping the direction of the show, both in the nonstop “athletic dance” of the dancer and in the placement and movement of the Chorus. Again, in the  Director Notes), Butler detailed her guiding principle:

Movement is our soul’s way of flushing out our deepest emotions—a tool to navigate, compartmentalize, and make sense of our distorted psyches when offset by insurmountable grief. What happens when we are denied access to our safest place, love? Orfeo offers us a scenario of love and loss and the vicious repetition it plays in our lives.

That “vicious repetition” she referred above became the theme of Butler’s choreography, particularly with regards to Orpheus and his three shadow dancers (and to some extent, Eurydice and her shadows), as in each step, the four of them turned into a single inseparable unit, with the shadows pulling Orpheus into all sorts of different directions. In a way, I associated them to the way our mind worked; for every decision we made, there were always doubts and confirmations lurking around that could steer us to either direction!

All these wonderful elements gelled beautifully under Ozawa’s direction to create a completely coherent reading from start to finish. My only slight reservation was the direction for Act 3—when Eurydice came into the picture—as the constant movement among Orpheus, Eurydice and their six shadow dancers somehow blurred Amore’s requirement (Orpheus faced Eurydice way too many times), in turn when Orpheus did finally come face to face with Eurydice (resulting in her death), the scene was much less impactful dramatically.

Orlinski was very much in his element on the Opening Night last Tuesday. It was hard to imagine that the production was not built around him, as it exploited his considerable talents, both as a countertenor and a break-dancer. After all, when the curtain was raised (and before a single note from the Orchestra), all one could see was him alone doing handstand in the middle of the stage!

Similarly, during the final moments of the opera after Amore revived Eurydice, the two of the ladies and the Chorus retreated upstage as Orlinski was showered in glitter (once again, suggesting the whole show took place in Orpheus head)! Nevertheless, he demonstrated a considerable stamina as he was perpetually in motion (including being upside down) on stage and continually singing during the 80 mins performance!

While my colleague Callum Blackmore reported  Orlinski’s being slightly underpowered during his role debut as Orpheus in Paris last September, I didn’t get the same impression from his performance. The countertenor seemed to have improved tremendously from the first time I saw him as the title role in Handel’s Tolomeo in Karlsruhe shortly before pandemic () and even from his sold-out jovial recital in Berkeley with his ex-roommate pianist Micha? Biel in Berkeley last spring.

Gone was the “soft-grained” nature of his voice, and in its place, substantial strength and gravitas, especially in his middle register. His interpretative skills, too, have become deeper and considerably more nuanced. His first utterances of “Eurydice!” in Act 1 were launched with an injured animal intensity, while the following “Chiamo il mio ben”—sung to Eurydice’s casket suspended mid-air—imbued with almost inconsolable sadness. The famous aria “Che farò senza Euridice?” in Act 3 particularly steeped in poignancy and tenderness, easily turned into the highlight of the night.

From my Grand Tier seat, I detected some instability on Orlinski’s volume output, with his voice went in and out at times, led me to wonder if that was caused by his constant movement, or whether there were some amplification involved in the process. Nevertheless, it didn’t affect in any way my enjoyment of the show!

So breathtaking was Orlinski’s performance on Tuesday that it was easy to overlook the other two characters, both of them gave their all splendidly as well. Soprano Meigui Zhang, who dazzled as frail Dai Yu in last summer’s Dream of the Red Chamber (), was brought on board less than two months ago to replace Christina Gansch who is expecting her second child, and judging from this performance, it was clear why.

While Eurydice was mostly visible during the Overture and the last act, it still required substantial physicality from the singer, including standing on a moving swing a few times during the Act 2 (Zhang also did her own dancing in this show!)

Total opposite of the frail Dai Yu before, Zhang’s characterization of Eurydice was a full-fledged woman, complete with feelings and emotions. Personally, Eurydice was always my least favorite character of the opera, as she spent much of her (short) time on stage complaining and doubting. While Zhang didn’t completely eradicate that feeling, she at least personified the role with much dignity and musicality, trading the excitement of seeing her husband with the confusion of his seemingly “uncaring” behaviors.

Furthermore, her voice sounded round and full with dark undertones, and it provided the much-needed contrast with Orlinski’s bright sound. I only wished that Eurydice weren’t relegated to the background in the final scene, as after all, the opera was titled “Orpheus and Eurydice!”

Much like her winning Despina in last year Così fan tutte, soprano Nicole Heaston stole the show as Amore every time she appeared, both because of her entrance(s) being perched high on the ceiling gleaming bright like sunlight and, most importantly, her sunny (pun intended) disposition bringing a respite from the overall gloomy intensity of the show. With her perfect comedic timing and bright silvery tone, she brought the house down with Act 1 “Gli sguardi trattieni”, where she manipulatively (just like any other Cupids) tested Orpheus’ fidelity with her cruel requirements.

Conductor Peter Whelan, the Artistic Director of Irish Baroque Orchestra, made his American debut with this performance, conducted the SF Opera in a reading full of strength and vigor, while never sacrificing many of the tender moments of the opera. I particularly loved how Whelan emphasized the harp sound in Act 2 (very important to the plot, as it represented Orpheus’ lyre), and Orpheus’ “duet” with the harp “Mille pene” sounded sufficiently sweet and honey-toned, totally believable to have melted the Furies’ hearts!

After a slight misstep at the beginning, the SF Opera Chorus (led by John Keene) rebounded nicely to present a community in mourning, and particularly in Act 2, turned a truly terrifying Furies with their cries of “No!” And kudos to the six impeccable “shadow” dancers who tirelessly moved the action forward throughout the show: Alysia Chang, Brett Conway, Marian Faustino, Livanna Maislen, Christopher Nachtrab and Maxwell Simoes.

If you have stayed with me this far, I bet you can guess how I would like to end this review. There’s no words superlative enough to describe this celebration of Orpheus’ grief, and I truly applaud San Francisco Opera for presenting such food for thought that will definitely resonate long after with me. Given the nature of the production, there’s little chance this production will travel, and certainly not without Orlinski, so you would be wise to try to catch the remaining four shows!

Photos: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera