To improve ‘Orpheus & Euridice,’ just add water
By ANDREW PATNER For Sun-Times Media November 3, 2013 4:18PM
As Euridice, soprano Valerie Vinzant glides on the water of the Ida Crown Natatorium in Chicago Opera Theater's "Orpheus & Euridice." | LIZ LAUREN
‘ORPHEUS & euridicE’
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Sunday
Where: Ida Crown Natatorium at Eckhart Park, 1330 W. Chicago
Admission : Free
Info: (312) 704-8414;
Updated: April 14, 2014 4:48PM
The River Styx has come to West Town.
Chicago Opera Theater’s area premiere of Ricky Ian Gordon’s 21st-century “Orpheus & Euridice” is so brilliantly conceived and so beautifully executed that it transcends the composer-lyricist’s often overly simple 55-minute song cycle and takes its poolside audience back to the depths and richness of the original myth of love, death and longing on either side of that dreaded waterway.
When COT general director Andreas Mitisek wanted to produce the 1996-2001 work at his Long Beach Opera in Southern California, he proposed to Gordon that the piece for clarinet and soprano, which had been done with dancers in a theatrical space of New York’s Lincoln Center in 2005, be expanded musically and set, literally, on and in a swimming pool. Gordon agreed and added a string quartet, piano and string bass and a few new passages.
Mitisek added water, and the work was a hit. The work was such a hit in 2008 that it was successfully revived just two years later. The enterprising director does not just talk about alternative spaces and going into the neighborhoods, he really knows how to find them and use them creatively.
Even before the piece begins, the audience of 230 takes an evocative journey through the historic Eckhart Park Fieldhouse, down into the modernist Ida Crown Natatorium, past the period locker rooms and into the night space of a pool lined with copies of Greek statuary and lounging, playful youths.
Gordon conceived the work in the mid-1990s while balancing a commission for a chamber work from clarinetist Todd Palmer with the emotional and time commitment of caring for his lover, Jeffrey Grossi, who was dying of AIDS. As the puckish artist tells it, he had a sort of vision that the Orpheus story fit with the ongoing experience of AIDS and wrote the original work in one day and night.
Unfortunately, the repetitive and unchanging nature of much of the score, too heavily imitative of Aaron Copland, and the obvious sing-song rhymes and phrases take much of the tragedy and complexity out of both the myth and the human experience of death.
Fortunately, Mitisek puts it all back in, and then some. Orpheus appears first as Todd Palmer, playing his clarinet hauntingly while standing in a rocky, unpiloted boat crossing the pool at the modernist Ida Crown Natatorium. Striking soprano Valerie Vinzant’s Euridice joins him at times on the water. At other times they, and/or their non-singing doubles, Matt Messina and Kate Smith, circle the tiled deck in stylized walking. David Lee Bradke’s lighting design both chills and illuminates Mitisek’s setting, eerie and comforting at the same time.
Four “players,” male and female, keep the 15 brief, continuous scenes moving, literally, in and around the boat and pool. The local Metropolis String Quartet, bassist Timothy Shaffer and pianist/conductor Stephen Hargreaves add a flowing, shimmering quality of their own to Palmer’s rich artistry and former COT Young Artist Vizant’s committed performance.
A partnership with the Chicago Park District’s “Classics in the Parks” program, “Orpheus” performances are free but advance tickets have been claimed. A limited number of walk-up and returned tickets are available each night at 6 p.m. See you by the pool!