“It was all so dark, so wonderfully dark,” said a bejeweled older woman, no doubt a Montecito patroness of the arts, as she reached over a lavish pyramid of delicate desserts and, not so delicately, balanced a wine glass while grabbing several raspberry coconut bars.
The woman’s words were correct. Dozens of people — young, old and all fashionably dressed — milled about the bar at the after party for Opera Santa Barbara’s debut production of Christoph Gluck’s “Orpheus and Eurydice,” handing out business cards with comical vigor. The scene was a far reach from the magical world which we had been immersed in just minutes earlier.
Or, should I say “the magical underworld”? Gluck based his opera off of the well-known myth of Orpheus (played by mezzo-soprano Layna Chianakas) and Orpheus’ true love, Eurydice (played by Marnie Breckenridge). When Eurydice dies an early death, Orpheus laments the loss so fervently that the figure of love incarnate, l’Amour (played by Angela Cadelago), gives him a chance to retrieve Eurydice from the Underworld, on the condition that he promises not to look at her until they have returned to the living world.
And thus Orpheus travels into the Underworld. It is at this point that the originality of Opera Santa Barbara and artistic director José Maria Condemi’s production became clear. When our protagonist enters Hades, he is met by the Furies, mythological female deities of vengeance, which are known to drive humans to madness with their flurry of, well, fury. The staging and choreography of the production, however, created an image more akin to a creepy, sedentary cult than as a furious group of women flitting around and wreaking havoc. The Furies were costumed in flesh-colored, body-encompassing sacks that, sickening yet enchanting, looked like sagging skin. They incorporated their bizarre outfits into their choreography, often pairing fluid, folding arm motions with jarring, angular movements. The two-fold effect of costuming and choreography (the collaborative work of San Francisco-based choreographer Yannis Adoniou and costumer Miller James) was elegantly dark. Tamed by Orpheus’ lyre, the Furies retreat eerily into themselves.
In the next scene, Eurydice, dead but still very active in her new underground home of Elysium, is living a utopian life where the trials and travails of the material world no longer matter to her. Dancing, again, takes up a majority of the introduction to this environment, and thus the romantic pirouettes combined with the billowing blue dresses of the ballet dancers aptly demonstrate that Elysium is, as Condemi put it, a land of “perfect harmony amidst sublime beauty.”
The work of set designer Jean-François Revon and lighting director Lucas Benjamin Krech equally contributed to Elysium’s utopian feel. Consisting mainly of large, shadowy panels that moved to various locations around the stage throughout the production, the rather minimalistic set design highlighted the complex plot line of the opera while keeping with the stage action’s surprising simplicity. This also worked with the ambiguous costuming of the ensemble. In the opera’s first scene of mourning, the cast seems to take on the aesthetic of industrial urbanites, yet the rest of the opera remains ethereal, indirectly reflecting the fact that the tale was originally a staple in Greek mythology and so should perhaps remain outside of any definite human epoch.
Orpheus, however, is an anxiety-riddled product of the material world and enters only to destroy this harmony by, despite his greatest efforts, feeling the need to look upon Eurydice. Eurydice falls to the ground and all seems lost, whereupon Chianakas’ Orpheus embarks on the aria “J’ai perdu mon Eurydice” (“I have lost my Eurydice”).
The role of Orpheus — sometimes played by a male counter-tenor with a femininely high vocal register and sometimes played by a mezzo-soprano masquerading as a man (referencing the term, “trouser role”) — is a difficult one. His music and his emotions are delicate, yet his stout heart requires a certain tenacity. Chianakas was able to mediate these two in “J’ai perdu mon Eurydice,” weeping and caressing Eurydice’s body while never faltering in her rich mezzo voice while singing the opera’s most beloved aria.
As with many operas, I found the ending scenes of “Orpheus and Eurydice” almost whiplash-inducing. Absurdly quick resolutions that wrap a tragic tale into a neat little package detract from the production’s darker moments and distort the overall tone. However, the minimalistic staging and costuming of this Opera Santa Barbara production saved “Orpheus and Eurydice” any carnival-like resemblances. Thus, when the genuineness of Orpheus’ suffering combined with the beauty of his music warms the heart of l’Amour and causes him to ultimately revive Eurydice, the audience is rather reminded of the transience of life rather than feeling jolted between dissonant scenes. Joy returns and libations are served.
As the crowd of Santa Barbara elite clutched their free libations, applauding the group of directors and cast members, who stood in the center of the Lobero Courtyard, the celebration seemed genuine. In a town where “culture” tends to be funded by wealthy retirees, the production of an opera that dates back to 1762 based on a myth that dates back to ancient Greece, is something to celebrate when it involves this amount of innovation, creativity and delicious darkness.