IN: Reviews

“Love is Love”

by

A winged Sydney Pérez (Jack Tan photo)

The NEMPAC-Boston Festival Orchestra collaboration on a queer interpretation of Gluck’s famed opera Orfeo ed Euridice, running on June 13th and 14th at the Dante Alighieri Society of Massachusetts, set the action in the ’90s gay “Club Orfeo.” Despite the rather solemn plot of mythological Greek story, the venue with a bar and themed cocktails to accompany the evenings event, for those who wished to purchase, accommodated the party-scene-scape of the show as the socially charged efforts of the production celebrated Pride Month.

Artistic/Stage Director Brenda Huggins’s interpretation delivered visual spectacles, dance parties, shock and awe! It is clear this was meant to feel fun and be a party for all. The overture seemed to depict the wedding reception of Orfeo and Euridice. With the cast having a dance party in the background, we see the two lovers sharing a tender moment of embrace before the anticipated tragic loss has arrived.

Mourning the loss of Euridice in the opening tableau, the chorus processed through the audience carrying umbrellas with crystal raindrops hanging around them―a beautifully poetic interpretation of Orfeo’s grief. Unfortunately, the poor balance and un-synched timing between the orchestra and chorus diminished the impact. These opening moments established the productions forward momentum, clarifying which aspects of this show most interested the company.

The three-act opera played in two segments, with an intermission placed in between Act 2 Scene 1 and Act 2 Scene 2, leaving us in a cliffhanger as Orfeo ventures into Hell. The Gates of Hell scene registered as the strongest cohesive moment of the evening. Musically and visually the stage came alive. In this particular scene I’m not sure anyone was prepared for what was about to happen. As Orfeo ventures off to the Gates of Hell, the scene changes into what can best be described as an exploration of the sexual taboos of BDSM and other explicit fantasies. We saw suggestive costuming, sexual props of whips waved in the air, a man wearing a collar and being led on a leash, and more suggestive movements. While these choices metaphorically correlated to Charon and Cerberus, the visual effect was striking. Paired with some comically timed choices from various chorus members, gasps and chuckles arose from the audience. I found this directorial choice to be bold, and I think challenges us as an audience in contemplating the motto “Love is Love,” which is referenced throughout.

In a month dedicated to acceptance, individuality, and authentic expression of self, reaching further into the realm of sexuality, we are met with illicit desires that transcend the conventions of gender attraction. Some may object to what they saw as provocation, but these lessons in acceptance of love, (whether intentional or not) provided a raw lesson in identity expression.

The visual aspects continued to make strong effects throughout. Pride colored angels with light-up wings, male-presenting individuals in dresses, female-presenting individuals in dark suits, grunge makeup, gemstones and sparkle… it was queer, it was abrasive, it was a party.

Lighting designer Amber Kovacs and assistant Pat Meaden did a lovely job at setting the mood and defining the space. With particular attention to illuminating  Amore in pink, the effective washes for each scene created the heights of earth and depths of hell between the balcony and the stage.

Mary Kray as Orfeo,  Madeine Lew as Euridice (Jack Tan photo)

Music Director and Conductor Alyssa Wang led a nine-member ensemble of string quintet, flute, double reed, harp, and keyboard in place of harpsichord drawn from her Boston Festival Orchestra. The ensemble work between the orchestra and chorus, achieved compelling musicality. Despite a number of ensemble mishaps, the collective skills could still shine forth. First violin Kurt Munstedt’s artistry and harpist Amanda Romano’s tenderness gave many pleasures.

After the important focus on Orfeo, Gluck’s signal adoption of the Greek Chorus really makes the show. Dramatically and musically, they didn’t disappoint. Those eight singers kept the attention of the crowd and held the musical fort. One of the more satisfying musical moments came when the chorus sang from the balcony. This use of the space offered the audience the best audible balance in the production, and the chorus shone here. The tenors rang out clearly throughout, cutting like a musical light beam out to the audience, and the basses’ gravitas and conviction grounded us to the Earth.

Abbey Dianna Englemann as Amore, fluttered about the stage drenched in glitter and rainbows casting out wishes like a gay fairy godmother. Her giggles and charm won praise of the audience. Madeleine Lew portrayed a strong minded Euridice. Her character, supportive in the grand scheme of the opera, stood out in a bridal suit of white, and made the most of her time on stage ― milking her aria as much as she could. Then of course, the focus of the story – Orfeo. Gender-bending the production into a lesbian love story, mezzo-soprano Mary Kray portrayed a grief stricken Orfeo with warm and solemn tone. The director’s concept aside, Gluck’s opera is a one man, or in this case one woman show. Orfeo’s story explores the seven stages of grief and requires skilled vocal technique and impeccable acting skill to move the audience through these emotions. Otherwise we very quickly (as easily) get stuck in a one-dimensional character. By the time we reach Orfeo’s famed aria “Che faro senza Euridice,” we find ourselves at the middle stage of depression, which only upturns when Amore arrives to stop Orfeo from suicide. The intense dramatic and musical demands of this aria and the sequential movements unfortunately didn’t hit their marks.

Gluck wrote Orfeo for castrato Gaetano Guadagni, and then in later years, castrati Vito Giuseppe Millico, and Joseph Legros took the role. The orchestration best accommodates the high male voice. Unfortunately, the close timbral proximity of the mezzo-soprano range to the orchestration caused many balance and auditory disruptions. Attention to musical details were sometimes lacking. Tempo changes took time to settle in, text placement felt vague, cut offs and entrances often failed to line up, and more importantly, cohesion of phrasing between singers and players left much to be desired. The successful musical moments of the show were sadly too rare.

NEMPAC certainly dared to be different as they injected an Opera Seria with Opera Buffa. The company’s celebration of social justice served as a wonderful addition to Boston Pride Month. Audiences will not soon forget this entertainment with a message. Predictably, the ending chorus turned into a big dance party, with bright lights, bubbles, and lots of gay love. In the fun of it all NEMPAC has given us some lessons in Pride: an acceptance of self, the willingness to love others in all that they are…and when in doubt to dance it out.

Stephanie Beatrice is Music Director for the Cambridge Chamber Ensemble, Calliope, Sudbury Savoyards, and is a sought-after guest conductor. She holds degrees from UMaine (BME) New England Conservatory (MM) as well as continued studies at the Juilliard School.

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