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“Metamorphoses: Orpheus in Oedipus”


Matthew Aucoin (file photo)

Three takes on Orpheus and Oedipus placed the mythical giants onstage at Sanders Theater making for a spectacle of storytelling and orchestral splendor. Matthew Aucoin’s The Orphic Moment dressed Eurydice in wordless violin manner with Orpheus taken on by an intriguingly pitched mezzo-soprano. John Harbison’s Symphony No. 5 took to a pair of voices with the orchestra playing accompagnando and an electric guitar posing as lute. For Igor Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, The Orchestra and Chorus of Emmanuel Music, Harvard Glee Club, along with an array of outstanding soloists under Ryan Turner fired up a thriller of incest and patricide. 

Supertitles projected above the stage enhanced understanding for many, one would assume.

Both the mezzo-soprano voice of Deborah Rentz-Moore and the violin of Heather Braun captivated in depth of character as much as in artistic execution in The Orphic Moment. Over the piece’s quarter hour or so, dancer Jacob Regan dynamically paralleled Aucoin’s music in near non-stop movement. The dramatic cantata’s chamber orchestra of 15 players seated on the left side of the stage burbled with precision, shrieked with passion, and energized builds before moving on to a dirge. Orpheus “waits until the light from the world above begins to filter down through the soil. He slowly turns his head. The scene goes dark.”  

Aucoin’s composition often matched the text overtly in a sequence of textural commentaries, some launching into action. 

For Harbison, listeners for a piece with words fall into three categories: those who follow the text during the performance, those who read the text before or after, and those “who pay no close attention.” He writes, “This piece existed, in imagination, as an orchestral mediation on loss, before the welcome suggestion from James Levine that it might contain music for voice.”

Texts of Czeslaw Milosz, Louise Glück, and Rainer Maria Rilke place Orpheus and Eurydice in settings centuries later, as does the symphonic work of Harbison. His big, sometimes torturous outbursts and an unyielding network of hypnotizing intricacies, though, evoke the era of myth.

An invigorated “Orpheus” from Ryan Turner and The Emmanuel Orchestra pitched perfectly the symphonic environment in which baritone David Tinervia thrived as word-carrier. Enunciation so distinct there might be only a blink there and here at supertitles. His acumen for a part somewhat verging on recitation as well as his ability to sustain so long a part proved quite a feat. Mezzo-soprano Krista River delivered beautiful softness, otherwise her operatic tendencies fought a believable Orpheus and Eurydice match. In a meditative duet, Tinervia’s leading and River’s canonic shadowing ever so movingly engraved impending death.

No matter the tessituras, no matter the pianissimos or fortissimos, Jon Jurgens’ tenor vividly emotionalized the starring role in Igor Stravinsky’s neo-classic “still life,” Oedipus Rex. Sharing those qualities in the role of mother, Michelle Trainor engendered a Jocasta that will also not soon be forgotten. Tenderness dissolving into aches with one admission of sin after another all spelled out in touching tones of the remarkable tenor Jurgens. Defending her son, then her husband, Trainor’s Jocasta soared into an unmistakable orbit of true maternal instincts. Singing in her deep soprano register terrified, while elsewhere her confutations of the oracle’s capability of telling the truth intensified in higher voice; it seemed no one could have been better cast. The Orchestra and Chorus of Emmanuel Music and Harvard Glee Club (reprising its role in the work’s  American premiere in 1928) amazingly fostered the mythic, the caustic, and spectacle of Stravinsky’s quasi-musical theater piece.

John Harbison (Jonathan Sachs photo)

David Cushing’s unaffected and clear-throated voicings of Tiresias kept the production in high gear. So too, did Matthew Anderson’s tenor in the role of the shepherd. David Kravitz’s baritone barged into this fine mesh with the roles of Creon and the messenger. Christopher Lydon narrated fittingly.

Kudos to Ryan Turner who, as conductor, proffered one of the rarest events of recent years. The well-populated Sanders Theater assented with vigor.

More on the story in a Ryan Turner interview HERE.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.  He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer).


3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. It’s a pity that David Patterson quotes Matthew Aucoin’s last line in the latter’s program notes without also quoting its initial two words and the sentence that comes before (which is startling): “Orpheus calculates the perfect moment to aim his gaze backwards at Eurydice. Patiently, coldly, he waits….” It is not the Orpheus of Monteverdi, Gluck, or even Cocteau. Aucoin’s musical imagination is stirred by his very different and paradoxical (perhaps even brilliant) take on the mythic singer. Orpheus knows how Eurydice’s first death inspired his greatest music, and because the perfection of his music is his greatest aim, he is willing to allow Eurydice’s second death (indeed, he is bent on willing it) to inspire and effect his subsequent music’s greatness. He “aim[s] his gaze backwards….Patiently, coldly….” It is this revisionist, ultra-esthetic shattering of the explanation for the traditional Orpheus’s backward glance that has inspired our young Aucoin/Orpheus’s outpouring of music. And that music lives up to his inspiration.

    I must add that the entire evening was wonderful, as Professor Patterson indicates, though I missed the stentorian and commanding voice of Cocteau in the old LP recording with French narration, when he called us to attention with that glorious “Spectateurs!”

    There have been several excellent program-books accompanying concerts in Boston this season, including the program for Blomstedt’s recent Mozart evening and the booklet for “Jeanne d’Arc au Bucher,” but this evening’s program-book for “Orpheus in Oedipus” was truly wonderful, offering in addition to several stimulating essays by Aucoin, Harbison, and Ryan Turner, TWO English translations of Rilke’s “Sonnets to Orpheus, II, 13.”

    Comment by Alan Levitan — February 25, 2018 at 11:40 am

  2. The Orpheus program notes to which Alan Levitan referred (minus Rilke Translation) are HERE.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — February 25, 2018 at 11:58 am

  3. Lee means “minus Stephen Mitchell’s Rilke translation.” John Harbison’s Rilke translation appears in his program notes.

    Comment by Alan Levitan — February 25, 2018 at 6:34 pm

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