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This review by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the July 18, 2001

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Opera Review: `Orfeo ed Euridice’

A satisfying wholeness pervades director Karen Tiller’s

production of Gluck’s "Orfeo ed Euridice," Opera Festival

of New Jersey’s third offering of the season, which opened at McCarter

Theater on Saturday, July 7. An opera director before assuming the

position of OFNJ general director, Tiller has been cultivating a


involvement with its productions and last season directed Frank


modern work, "Burning Bright."

In this strongly focused production of "Orfeo," Tiller cuts

across boundaries between music and movement. Members of the chorus

not only sing, but include choreographed movement in their stage


A dance ensemble mingles comfortably on stage with the chorus.


singers also engage with the dancers, moving in their midst.

What is seen and what is heard are intimately intertwined. Euridice’s

glass coffin, visible initially on an open-curtained stage, is hidden

from view as the audience listens to the overture in darkness.


by David Agler, the instrumental introduction unfolds briskly and

lightly, a prelude to the propulsion that this orchestra provides

throughout the piece. Gradually, from the darkness, comes the somber

sight of variegated gray umbrellas shielding a host of black-clothed

mourners; from these mourning couples, the grief-stricken Orfeo


The visual punch of Kris Stone’s contemporary scenic design, of April

Soroko’s costumes, and of F. Mitchell Dana’s lighting emphasize the

lean story line. The palette is essentially black and white, with

accents of brilliant color. Simplicity of design underscores the


plot and relatively undecorated score.

Orfeo (Margaret Lattimore) grieves inconsolably at the death of his

beautiful bride, Euridice (Christine Brandes). Amor (Kristen Plumley),

Goddess of Love, informs him that he may bring Euridice back from

Hades, provided he does not look at her and does not explain why he

averts his gaze. Having charmed his way into Hades by his


Orfeo finds Euridice and begins their return journey to earth,


to avoid looking at her. Eventually, tormented by Euridice’s pleading,

Orfeo embraces her and she dies. The despairing Orfeo plans to kill

himself in order to rejoin Euridice in the underworld, yet Amor


him, and the loving couple is permitted to return to earth.

Essential to realizing Gluck’s opera successfully is an Orfeo with

the stamina to participate fully for the entire span of the piece.

Orfeo is an almost constant presence. At the 1762 premiere the role

was played by the renowned contralto castrato Gaetano Guadagni. Since

then it has been recast for various celebrated voices, male and


OFNJ’s Orfeo, mezzo-soprano Margaret Lattimore, showed both the


to meet the technical demands of the role and the additional artistic

and dramatic range to make her performance memorable. The expressive

qualities of her voice are extraordinary. With a considerable margin

of comfort, she dispensed a variety of emotions — grief, love,

and determination; yearning and frustration; despair, sorrow, and

remorse. Her crowning aria, "Che faro senza Euridice," moved

the audience to interrupt the action by its applause.

In possession of a virtuoso array of acting skills,

Lattimore subtly applied nuanced body language to this trouser role.

Her gait and manner of standing motionless were non-feminine enough

that one was not distracted by the thought that this was a woman


a man’s role. Indeed, so consistent was Lattimore at thinking herself

Orfeo, that she maintained the illusion even in the curtain calls,

handing over her bouquet to Christine Brandes, her Euridice, during

the audience’s acclaim.

Brandes was a nubile Euridice, shapely, and garbed in a long white

wedding dress, which I found singularly appropriate. Neither she nor

Kristen Plumley (Amor), both of whose roles are less demanding than

Lattimore’s, displayed Lattimore’s vast musical and technical


By comparison, their voices were somewhat harsh and their movement


Yet the overall thrust of the production is consistent enough to


a viewer to make allowances. Take Amor’s appearance, for instance.

Initially, Amor wears a magenta dress, black pumps, and eyeglasses.

She seems to be a corporate type about to break through the glass

ceiling. In her second appearance, she wears a long, sequined


gown and a hot-pink veil. Suddenly, she is a debutante. One needs

to remind oneself that the gods can be capricious.

Orfeo’s clothing, a tuxedo, also takes some getting used to. Formal

wear may not be the best choice for a funeral. However, his


look is consistent with the production’s dramatic vision.

In this staging, we cannot be sure whether Hades lies above the earth

or below it. The confusion comes from visually arresting ladders that

link the two realms. The ladder that descends from the flies as Orfeo

is about to begin his quest for Euridice in Hades gives the visual

clue that the way to the underworld, surprisingly, is up, not down.

Having arrived at the underworld, Orfeo sits near the top of a ladder.

Otherwise, Hades is in its usual place.

Early music specialist David Agler has opted here to include long

passages of incidental music often excised from the score. Simple

and effective dances, choreographed by Mary Pat Robertson and


by a professional ensemble of six, seamlessly and imaginatively


these music passages into the vocal drama.

Gluck’s "Orfeo ed Euridice" stands as one of opera’s early

gems. A reformer of the Baroque musical stage, Gluck attempted to

correct the excesses of the opera scene as he knew it. He preferred

stressing plot rather than merely providing singers with an


to display their vocal muscle. And his return to simplicity was


More than two centuries after "Orfeo" was premiered, it no

longer shocks. However, its elegance still communicates.

— Elaine Strauss

Orfeo ed Euridice , Opera Festival of New Jersey,

McCarter Theater, University Place, 609-258-2787. $22 to $82.


July 20, 8 p.m., & Sunday, July 29, at 2 p.m.

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