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Reviews

<em>Orphée+</em>, Against the Grain Theatre, Banff Festival
13 Jul 2018

Banff’s Hell of an Orphée+

Against the Grain Theatre brought its award winning adaptation of Gluck’s opera to the Banff Festival billed as “an electronic baroque burlesque descent into hell.”

Orphée+, Against the Grain Theatre, Banff Festival

A review by James Sohre



Photo credit: Blake Manns

 

There is truth in advertising.

The creators have used Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice (Berlioz version, 1859) as their inspiration for Orphée+, the “+” signifying every contemporary innovation they melded with the original.

This is somewhat a strange turn about for Baroque opera, which in recent decades has sought to be ever more doggedly faithful to the original performances practices, including period instruments. This production did it’s damnedest to entertainingly turn that on its head. Banff’s inventive aural interpretation was notable for two bold choices.

First, an electric guitar not only provided an atmospheric, hip accompaniment for the recitatives, but also screamed out some pretty anguished counter melodies that warbled, twanged and shredded to ably underscore the title hero’s grief and pathos. Shades of Superstar! The imaginative, stylish guitarist was the dynamic Kristian Podlacha.

The other notable musical “updating” was the incorporation of a virtual chorus that blended with a live choral quartet to bring an eerie connectivity, a social media sensibility to the unfolding tragedy. Video clips of countless choristers were somehow sync’d and projected on the white scenic surface to form an unsettling collage of keening commentators that were anonymous, interchangeable, connected by a media op, yet unconnected on any deeply meaningful level. Quite a subtext there for and about today’s audience.

Once you accepted the au courant addition to the sound, you couldn’t help but admire the wholly idiomatic conducting from Topher Mokrzewski. Maestro Mokrzewski doesn’t so much conduct the score as inhabit it, eliciting luminous passion and rhythmic precision from his talented instrumentalists. He forged a highly satisfying partnership with his soloists that was pliable and unified in purpose. And he managed to keep the virtual and live singers in perfect order, thanks to a click track and an unerring baton.

It was unusual for a classical conductor to have to somewhat abdicate issues of balance to a sound designer, but John Gzowski did fine work overall. The slight over-balancing of the guitar in some low-lying vocal phrases during the first half were completely remedied after intermission.

The cast could hardly have been bettered. As Orphée, countertenor Siman Chung sizzled with firepower, star power, and every other kind of power. Mr. Chung has a haunting color to his meaty tone, with a thrilling brilliance to his upper range. While he lavished the famous laments with limpid, affecting tone, he also deployed his well-schooled instrument to fine effect as he ripped through spot-on passages of manic coloratura.

Miriam Khalil complemented her co-star with a radiant, empathetic rendition of Eurydice. Ms. Kahlil’s poised, warmly gleaming soprano was not only dispatched with honeyed tone, but also grew in finely spun spinto presence as the heroine became more despairing and fearful. From a tremulous, loving reunion to urgently pleading for her lover to look upon her, her performance was expertly rendered.

Soprano Etta Fung performed the miraculous feat of not only singing Amour with charm and verve, but also by simultaneously clutching, twisting and cavorting around and about two billowing cloths in a display of aerial artistry. Ms. Fung was roundly and rightly cheered for such a daring flight of fancy, but truth to tell she sang even better in her second appearance. When finally earthbound, the diminutive singer found even more crystalline focus in her agile technique.

Nor was this high-flying moment the only nod to Cirque du Soleil. The brooding set design, deployment of projections, and riotously colorful lighting palette all contributed mightily to a high tech, in your face, immersive experience that is not just over the top, but over the rainbow to a fantastical Oz of a milieu.

Zane Pihlström has created a mash-up of an ingenious costume design that is part Steampunk, part Moulin Rouge, part Victoria’s Secret, and all points in between. With quick-paced abandon we go from frock coats to Mardi Gras masks to jockstraps and thongs, to a high-heeled chorus (men, too) as the dancers impersonate commentators, demons and hedonistic revelers.

S. Katy Tucker’s all white set design is most notable for providing a receptive surface for S. Katy Tucker’s innovative projection design. The basic structure consisted of two receding sidewalls, dotted with cubes of varying sizes. That uneven surface coupled with some cutout windows, allowed for countless opportunities to vary the break-up and shadows cast by down- and side-lighting.

There was a pile of cubes down left, a sort of makeshift memorial littered with flickering white pillar candles. And there was a layered grouping of “trees” filling the playing space, suggested by hanging flared strips of cloth. There was nonstop deployment of finely isolated projection effects of the “how-did-they-do-that?” variety. How did they get those stacked up singing heads on those “trees”? How did they manage a hide and seek appearance of a floating Eurydice on them? These were jaw-dropping feats of stagecraft.

Then there were just the “garden variety” rear projections with suitably troubling imagery like an enlarged, watchful, green Buñuel eyeball; a crazily possessed image of demented Eurydice maniacally nodding by snapping her head sharply forward and back; or a fiery lightshow to rival the fury of Hawaii’s current inexorable lava flow. JAX Messenger is credited with the lighting design that flawlessly interfaced with the imagery and moving parts. When the “trees” were suddenly “uprooted,” twisted and affixed to opposite walls the illumination could make them appear to be thunderclouds, a leafy arbor, or a disco ceiling with equal skill.

Director Joel Ivany’s fertile imagination is everywhere evident in knitting together all the diverse elements that brought this fresh concept to focused fruition. Although the piece is played with dramatic truth and the highest musical values, Mr. Ivany has framed them in a visually paced panoramic delight that is born of today’s sensibilities.

It is sometimes hard to know when Joel’s direction leaves off and Austin McCormick’s ingeniously original choreography begins. Mr. McCormick has his prodigiously talented group of six dancers in almost constant, fluid motion. As they provide background commentary on the emotional journey, the corps intertwines, writhes, reclines, rolls, scatters, forms a group, uncouples, and couples again, sometimes in gender bending ways.

Just when you think the movement may be too frenetic, director Ivany judiciously parts the waves to focus on a soloist; settles the visuals into a steady image; or clears the stage entirely to allow for a moment of poignant isolation. On the strength of this totally absorbing “electronic baroque burlesque descent into hell” I feel that both the honored past and promising future of opera were equally well served.

Make that “Well-served+.”

James Sohre

Orphée+
Inspired by Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice
(Berlioz version, 1859)

Orphée: Siman Chung; Eurydice: Miriam Khalil; Amour: Etta Fung; Dancers: Erin Dillon, Jacob Karr, Michele Lee, Eric Lehn, Michael McArthur, Lauren Muraski; Chorus: Nicole Joanne, Jamie Groote, José González Caro, Daevyd Pepper; Conductor: Topher Mokrzewski; Director: Joel Ivany; Choreographer: Austin McCormick; Sound Design: John Gzowski; Set and Projection Design: S. Katy Tucker; Lighting Design: JAX Messenger; Costume Design: Zane Pihlström

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