Opera Theater's 'Orpheus' inspiring

With gravestones, mausoleums and monuments stretching out in all directions, a single clarinetist strolled, playing a mournful melody. And with that, a most remarkable operatic event began in a most unusual setting: Allegheny Cemetery.

Thursday night the cemetery became a stage for a collaboration by Opera Theater of Pittsburgh and Attack Theatre. The reason wasn't to try to one-up Quantum Theater, but to put the Orpheus myth into potent context.

The center of the affair was Ricky Ian Gordon's moving "Orpheus and Euridice," originally a song cycle for soprano, clarinet and piano inspired by the passing of his partner to AIDS. Mr. Gordon attended Carnegie Mellon University, but is primarily known to Pittsburghers as the composer of "The Grapes of Wrath," which played at the Benedum Center in a Pittsburgh Opera production several years ago. That subject was epic, and full of characters and historically placed. "Orpheus" is intimate, about a couple, and updated. It would have been a joy just to hear the gifted composer (and librettist here) in another genre.

But Opera Theater director Jonathan Eaton, who has led his company into myriad spaces in town over the years, brought the two sides together in a production that was both personal and epic. It started with the location -- by the lake in the cemetery -- and came to full fruition by his expanding the story to include dancers to portray the characters.

Mr. Gordon's work has been heard in orchestral arrangement before, but this took the work to a new level. Soprano Laura Knoop Very sang the libretto, but this time was part of the action, while three Attack Theatre dancers brought it alive, so to speak. Liz Chang (Euridice), Dane Toney (Orpheus) and Ashley Williams (Spirit) moved around the lake and a minimalist set (adorned with small obelisks) while two clarinetists split the part. The latter effect by Ricky Williams and John Culver was as inspired as it was difficult. The two traded phrases from some distance. Actually, most of the music making was at a huge distance, with conductor/pianist Robert Frankenberry somehow keeping it all together. But hearing the dirge-like strains of the small orchestra, the plaintive wail of the clarinets and the natural environment (from wind rustling the trees to birds chirping) brought out the beauty of the cemetery.

While the miking made it hard to understand Ms. Very at times, she was nothing short of fantastic in memorizing the entire song cycle while becoming a central part of the staging. The soprano somehow captured a sympathy quality to her singing, which soared above the lake. While the set was impressive (the boat that Euridice is placed on after she dies moved by cable ingeniously hidden under the water), Peter Kope and Michele de la Reza's choreography was most intriguing. With turns and leaps with arms outstretched, they first emphasized the Greek origin of the tale. But later, when Orpheus and Euridice are married and even experiencing domestic issues (Orpheus gets caught up with composing and ignores her), the choreography became more rooted and realistic. It mirrored Mr. Gordon's intention of weaving the past and present The dancers movements could have been sharper, but considering the situation (dancing near water, a steep hill and on large rocks) they fared quite well.

What could have been gimmicky in the hands of lesser artists was an experience that many will remember.
- Andrew Druckenbrod, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 10 June 2011