I think it’s fair to say, however, that none of these accounts are as deeply personal as Ricky Ian Gordon’s Orpheus and Euridice. Written in a white heat while caring for a dying partner, Gordon’s libretto speaks with simple eloquence of the dizzy exuberance of love and the bitter anguish of loss. Conceived as a song cycle for clarinet, soprano, and piano, a staged version of the work at Lincoln Center won an Obie in 2006.
The ever-adventurous Artistic Director of Long Beach Opera, Andreas Mitisek, discovered the piece and commissioned a new orchestration from Gordon. He convinced clarinetist Todd Palmer and soprano Elizabeth Futral to reprise their Lincoln Center roles. And he conceived a production that would be performed in and around an Olympic swimming pool—conjuring simultaneous visions of the River Styx, David Hockney paintings, Sondheim’s Frogs, and Mary Zimmerman’s brilliant staging of the Metamorphoses.
The new orchestrations are stunning, adding depth and lushness to the score without overwhelming its inherent intimacy. The sound is distinctly American, with hints of Barber and Bernstein, but it reminds me most of the Wyoming sections in Gordon’s own Dream True. His production of The Grapes of Wrath will be seen locally next year and is a definite operatic must-see.
Todd Palmer and Elizabeth Futral are world-class artists, and the fact that he plays beautifully and she sings with ethereal assurance is no surprise. But the true thrill is to see how completely they immerse themselves in the concept of the production. Negotiating complicated riffs while standing in a moving rowboat can’t be part of Palmer’s normal routine. Watching a fearless Futral expire in the same boat, leaning over the side almost to the point of capsizing, is as far from the opera diva stereotype as is possible to imagine.
Mitisek’s spare direction is carefully crafted for the surroundings. He introduces a pair of dancers as a second Orpheus and Euridice, which allows greater freedom in staging and the ability to fully explore the pool as a playing space. It also allows the music to continue uninterrupted while he creates memorable images with the second couple. Euridice’s immersion after death and the moment when Orpheus looks back and she disappears forever under the water’s surface are two indelible moments from the production.
Long Beach Opera has gambled with staging a song cycle in a very alternative space and has delivered a memorable and magical theatrical experience. The one sour note was the uncomfortable bleacher seating.