Lyric-Joffrey collaboration updates triumphant 'Orphée et Eurydice'
Stuffy opera traditionalists may bristle at "Orphée et Eurydice," a historic first collaboration between the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Joffrey Ballet that boldly opened Saturday at the Civic Opera House.
That's because Milwaukee-born John Neumeier, the longtime director and chief choreographer of The Hamburg Ballet, has daringly updated and altered key plot points in Gluck's ballet-enhanced 1774 Paris version of his 1762 "reform opera."
Yet adventurous audiences will see how Neumeier brings a modern-day relevance to his dance-world interpretation of this ancient Greek myth of love and loss. And Neumeier does so while wielding amazing creative control as director, choreographer and production designer.
Neumeier refashions Orphée (Russian tenor Dmitry Korchak) as a ballet choreographer who is thrown into a world of grief when his tempestuous star ballerina wife, Eurydice (Canadian soprano Andriana Chuchman), is killed in a car accident following a nasty rehearsal room spat. With some prodding by his dance assistant Amour (American soprano Lauren Snouffer), Orphée is inspired to bring Eurydice back to life via a visit to the underworld.
Neumeier leaves open whether Orphée's journey is a literal or metaphorical one. For instance, are the demonic dancing Furies an embodiment of the choreographer's self doubts at attempting to revive his wife through his art? And Neumeier's idealized dance studio vision of the Elysium Fields could be a shout-out to his artistic colleagues since many stage directors say their artistic heaven would involve continuous rehearsals without an opening-night deadline.
Throughout this self-referential dance interpretation of the opera, Neumeier masterfully choreographs the company of 43 Joffrey dancers in beautifully geometric ballets that advance the plot and stand alone as virtuosic showpieces. And though Neumeier banishes the Lyric Opera Chorus to the pit with the orchestra, the musical values shine through under both resident chorus master Michael Black and the conducting of visiting early music specialist Harry Bicket.
Sopranos Chuchman and Snouffer give lovely performances. In particular, Chuchman's take on Eurydice is full of both grace and aggressive passion, especially when hectoring Orphée about his refusal to look at her.
Korchak, however, was occasionally tested by the high tessitura demands of this tenor version of Orphée. Also slightly worrying were the production's high mirrored sets that wobbled throughout.
Ultimately, though, this Lyric-Joffrey collaboration is a triumph that showcases the best of these Chicago performing arts titans. And "Orphée et Eurydice" serves as a potent reminder of the consoling power of the arts, even in the face of unbearable loss.
"Orphée et Eurydice"★ ★ ★ ½
Where: Lyric Opera of Chicago and Joffrey Ballet at Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago, (312) 827-5600 or lyricopera.org/orphee
When: 2 p.m. Sunday and Thursday, Oct. 1, 12 and 15; 7:30 p.m. Friday and Monday, Oct. 6 and 9; through Oct. 15
Running time: Two hours and 20 minutes with intermission
Parking: Area pay garages and limited metered street parking
Rating: For general audiences; sung in French with projected English translations