Thursday evening’s opening of the Boston Opera Collaborative’s production of Orpheus in the Underworld at the Strand Theater in Dorchester carried forward a longstanding theatrical examination of the rewards, punishments and evasions of the ethical afterlife within a forward-looking vehicle and an updated (English, supertitled) libretto.
Deals struck for getting into or staying out of Hell have captured writers’ imaginations for millennia. Homer’s retelling of the Persephone cycle (she must go underground for six months each year, returning to Earth for the other six); Ovid’s tale of the musician Orpheus (who reclaims his wife Eurydice from death, but loses her when he turns back to look at her); the Biblical tale of Dives (a rich man whose colleagues don’t believe him when he alerts them to the torments they risk in the afterlife by mistreating the poor Lazarus); and de Coincy’s story of Theophillus, (a precursor to the Faust tale concerning a man who bargains for success in this life by promising his soul to the devil, who is then is saved by the Virgin) all reflect on playing the odds between rebounding hope, and ultimate despair, in the afterlife.
Mid-19th c. Romantic painters, choreographers, writers and composers, fascinated with otherworldly narratives like these, followed the traditions of their respective crafts while playing new changes on ancient themes. Some revived the tale intact using more modern forms. Others invested it with a bit of revisionary mythology. Some did both. One of the latter was Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, premiered in 1858 in Paris.
In librettist Cremieux’s re-worked version of the Orpheus tale, Euripides fails to get his wife Eurydice back because he doesn’t really want to succeed, since they weren’t getting on before she died. The libretto goes further than any previous Western theatrical treatment of the tale in exploring the ambivalence of the human psyche where good and evil — and fidelity, fun, and final payments — are concerned. The modernized translation works well enough, despite a few inexplicable anomalies. (Why locate a jazz club so clearly patterned after Harlem’s Cotton Club on Hollywood and Vine? And are all those (drearily predictable) one-liners on Heaven and Hell really in the original?)
Keeping this parabolic morality-tale-within-a-comedy aloft is something the score promises is possible. And the play’s history shows it has been done often over the past century and a half: the original production ran for over 200 nights in Paris, was revived, and then toured to or was reprised in other continental towns and London afterwards. But the BOC production still wants for both more élan and éclat to hoist the balloon up, and keep it afloat. There were many promising moments and a general sense of ebullience that might yet gel into something more pointed and communicative. Strong vocal delivery and dedication to working out the intricacies of a choreographed, sung theatrical piece were consistently present.
The dimensional images just didn’t all quite come together, the narrative lines didn’t all converge at the same time or on the same point to provide the sharpness of attack a parody needs. Too many things were too fluffy, too sloppy, too floppy, or too fuzzy to quite convey the punch and sizzle such a forked-tongue-in-cheek comedy requires.
Because this is a comedy, Orpheus’ failure is no tragedy for Eurydice: she likes Pluto and wants to stay with him in Hades. Her philandering husband’s success in reclaiming her would have just made both him and his murderous mistress miserable — and he was just doing it for form’s sake, to suit the capable personification of (on Thursday night) Christina English’s Jane Hathaway-like “Public Opinion.” The only real losers in the piece are the Elysian deities who, after their romp in Hell, must return to their old, indolent existence: sleeping, eating ambrosia, drinking nectar, and pretending to enjoy being moral creatures for Jupiter’s sake.
Individual vocal issues were the least objectionable, with only an occasional lapse in phrasing, support or pitch. (One enterprising singer managed three differently-colored versions of the vowel “a” in a single line.) The balance of male to female voices was unsatisfying, with so few men in the chorus that the SATB harmonic sections generally read as a fluty treble choir without an anchor The strings were less often on pitch than the more reliable winds and horns, and tempi at times lagged or felt stodgy when the band ignored the baton.
But issues like this were countered in part by other, more potentially impressive offerings. Lindsey Conrad’s delivery of an entire aria prone, recalled for me Jayne West’s ironic rendition in an old H&R/G&S production of Pirates of Penznace. She sang “He Loves Me, He is Here,” from the bottom of a long staircase after Frederick has pushed her down in anger. Pluto’s lightly focused sensuality, whether het, hom, or bi, was playful, available and always somewhere present, as befits a Senior Tempter (to borrow Lewis’ phrase from Screwtape Letters.)
My biggest beef, though, was the lack of a coherent narrative line within the staged movement. Some choreographers and blocking directors can ignore each other with impunity, relying on their experienced performers’ instincts to bridge this potential gap in continuity and fluent delivery. In this work, though, the dance elements and the more prosaic gestural and postural movement work must dovetail closely, and must, in fact, seem to come from the same bodies, because the locus of the dialogue in a piece so focused on sexual mores is, more than any other kind, found in the body.
Segues between danced and non-danced segments were sometimes smooth, sometimes less well prepared. Any sense of period stance or pedestrian movement styles (the costuming and other cues loosely suggest the post-flapperish 30s) was apparently left to individual performers, if they could manage it. The choreographer (who may be pardoned in part because in the early 90s his alma mater dispensed with the services of the late eminent dance historian I. Brainard to appease students’ pleas for “more modern dance in the curriculum”) seemed not to have had much briefing in the way of dance reconstruction, if that was what he was after, or using interactive dance to advance the plot, as musical theater choreographers since Agnes DeMille have been known to do. Maybe he just wasn’t given enough rehearsal time, but the danced voice in the production was unsteady, often clichéd, and only loosely imitative of a generalized “past movement” vocabulary.
And the trouble with that is that a parody of something has to be more and not less like the thing itself. A sendup only works if it is tight, well-paced and smartly dispatched. Offenbach didn’t write something like a minuet in the second Act, he wrote a bona fide minuet — by then, several decades out of date — for the bored gods to dance inattentively. So either the actual steps of a minuet, or an effort-shape abstraction of such steps, done so meticulously and anaerobically as to convey disinterest and distaste rather than some muzzy blend of skaters’ holds and coupled exchanges from the Lancers’ Quadrille, muddled through with shrugged shoulders and mugged yawns will do. If the singers themselves can’t handle this, then get trained dancers who can, and blend them in somehow. And give everyone enough rehearsal time on transitions so these parts of the machine fit and run together in a well-oiled manner.
This was especially problematic in the cancan itself. This dance is too well known as the showpiece of the work not to get it right. The wide range of dancerly experience was agacant, with directional imprecision and a lack of gestural inflection that would not be tolerated in a melismatic vocal phrase or an oboe’s cadenza. The men’s’ kick-chorus was fine, so far as it went, and I don’t quibble with Price’s insistence on male invention in this dance, but it was unevenly performed. The (mostly female) chorus’s dutiful bounces and low kicks, equally defensible (albeit limited) as reconstructive choreographic choices, did not project virtuosity in any known period movement grammar, something we know was a hallmark of this show’s earliest performances. Folks who see themselves primarily as singers often make dance the step-child of a production, but doing so seriously beggars the inbuilt production values of this particular work. (Yes, it had good energy, but where was the focus? OK, it was fun, but what did it communicate about the play?)
Attending to those issues could have also informed the actors’/singers’ wants of more consistently periodized stage movement vocabulary — be it 1850s, 1890s, 1920s, or 1930s. Dell and Laban offer a useful basis for movement construction, as well as movement deconstruction. The choreographer working in period settings may translate more effectively from era to era by knowing and analyzing period dance more thoroughly, and by keeping such catalytic resources in mind. Any one of several capable period dance Reconstructionists in the area could also have been consulted, but that did not look to have been the case.
And yet: The idea of a collaborative for nascent professional singers-in-formation is a worthy one, and the BOC’s semi-democratized hierarchies have produced a reasonably responsible production, which, as a supported Free-for-All performance, is a worthwhile endeavor and a true community offering. The half-refurbished Strand Theater project, still underway, is also definitely worth continued support, to see the job completed. (I grew up in Columbus, Ohio, where the Lowes’ Ohio was one of the first old-time movie houses to mount a preservation campaign (literally, in the face of the wrecker’s ball) so it was pleasant to see a swatch of Pompeian red peering out from an excavated patch here, and the stenciled roses on an ochre pilaster forming a pattern there. Recovering such spaces is like recovering Orpheus: each in its way is a worthwhile work-in-progress.
And so, the takeaway, the moral of the modernized version of the story? It’s no fun being good. Keeping up appearances ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, either. So, you might as well follow your whims, because everyone else is going to, too.
Sounds fairly Ovidian to me.