Two first-class voices spark Palm Beach Opera’s intimate “Orfeo”
Palm Beach Opera is making the best of a difficult economic situation with its production of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, mounting an austere production that succeeded with fine singers and a strong sense of theater.
To save money last season, the company offered Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in place of a fourth opera. This season, they’re performing a “semi-staged” version of Gluck’s 1762 work, taking advantage of the lower production costs to give South Florida audiences the opportunity to hear a rarely performed early opera and a first-rate countertenor in a leading role.
The performance Friday evening at the Kravis Center, directed by Doug Varone, made intelligent use of the materials at hand to create a performance that had its own integrity, rather than seeming like a low-budget version of the real thing.
The opera tells the story of the poet and singer Orfeo who is allowed to go into the underworld to rescue his young wife Euridice from death. At the first chord of the overture, six white-clad dancers burst onto the stage and began moving to the music. The dancers often acted as the physical manifestations of the chorus’ characters, forming human walls around Orfeo, for example, as the Furies refused him entrance to the underworld.
Although the dancers sometimes proved distracting, particularly during non-vocal orchestral passages, the production kept the focus firmly on music and plot, providing a distilled essence of the work. This is not an art form whose strong suit is realism anyway, so the absence of sulfur fumes, manufactured Elysian Fields or Furies costumed with bat wings didn’t detract from a performance dominated by terrific singing and committed performances.
The part of Orfeo had originally been written for a castrato. As this vocal type is mercifully unavailable today, the part is generally taken either by a mezzo-soprano or countertenor. For this performance, the company brought in the young countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, whose rich, agile voice alone would have made the evening a success.
The short, slender Costanzo is not at first glance a heroic stage presence. But he made you forget this as he grew into the role as the evening unfolded. The countertenor displayed apt courage and determination as he confronted the Furies guarding the underworld and impassioned despair when he fears that he’ll never see his wife alive again. Costanzo’s singing was stellar throughout, from his first mournful cries of his wife’s name to his eloquence in sweet-talking the Furies into opening the gates. A high point of the performance was his rendering of the aria Che farò senza in which he pined for his lost wife, lying on stage facing the audience and singing with wrenching emotion and gleaming tone.
Fort Lauderdale native Nadine Sierra, a young soprano who is starting to make her mark on the larger operatic world, was an affecting Euridice. Her voice is a bright, weighted instrument, and she brought effortless personality to the stage, bringing out the emotions of the role, from the anguish in her eyes as Orfeo refuses to look at her to the joy of their reunion. Her long dramatic scene with Constanzo was a sonic show-stopper with a blending of two first-class voices.
In the smaller role of Amore, or Cupid, the mezzo-soprano Irene Roberts, who sang from a raised position behind the orchestra, rounded out the cast with a rich, full voice that communicated compassion for Orfeo.
The orchestra, normally among the most reliable elements of this company’s productions under artistic director Bruno Aprea, played below its usual level in this highly exposed music. Violins displayed persistent intonation problems, and there was a general lack of vigor and brio in Gluck’s tuttis.
The chorus did a fine job with its important part, singing with well-blended tone and convincingly portraying both the shepherds’ gentle mourning and the wrath of the underworld Furies.
Palm Beach Opera’s Orfeo ed Euridice repeats 2 p.m. Sunday. pbopera.org; 561-833-7888.
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Sat Jan 22, 2011
at 12:40 pm