Seattle Opera's "Orphée et Eurydice," March 4, 2012
By Melinda Bargreen
When the house lights go down at the opera and the company’s general director steps out of the wings, it’s seldom a good sign.
He (or she, as the case may be) is not there to tell you to silence your cell phones and pagers, though this is always a good idea. He is there to tell you that one of the singers – perhaps the singer you have bought tickets specially to hear – is not going to appear that evening.
But this is not always a disaster. Seattle Opera audience members who were ready to fall on their swords at the news that William Burden, the undisputed star of the current “Orphée et Eurydice,” was unable to perform on March 4th found much to enjoy in the remarkable performance of Burden’s cover, Andrew Stenson. A member of Seattle Opera’s Young Artists Program, Stenson is not new to the company’s main stage, but the role of Orphée is an unusual challenge. Orphée is absolutely central to the opera – he is onstage for most of the performance, with singing of such sustained demands on the tenor’s top register (and his memory!) that many would find it unsingable.
The demands are not only vocal: the drama as a whole succeeds or fails on the tenor’s ability to project his absolute despair over the death of his wife Eurydice, his utter joy at her return to life, and his torment over the conditions imposed on her release from the underworld. And then, this must happen all over again, with another death and another revival. Orphée carries the show. If you have an unconvincing Orphée, your audience will be snoring, not empathizing.
Luckily, Stenson was so well prepared that he made everything look easy. His voice is not as large as Burden’s, but it has a lyrical freedom that recalls the young Vinson Cole. Stenson commands an apparently limitless range, a highly developed vocal agility with remarkably good trills, and a passionate conviction that reaches right into the house. No one watching his performance would have guessed – without the announcement – that he was stepping into a production on two hours’ notice when Burden was unable to go on because of an ankle injury.
And what a production! Streamlined, handsome, all elegant simplicity in both the décor and the acting, this Orphée was the work of stage director Jose Maria Condemi, a Seattle Opera regular whose work here has been consistently excellent, and the set designer Phillip Lienau – with great-looking contributions from costume designer Heidi Zamora and lighting designer Connie Yun. Zamora’s gown for the Eurydice, Davinia Rodriguez, was an Oscar-worthy classical Grecian concoction that enhanced every scene in which Eurydice appeared. And her costumes for the dancers (wonderfully choreographed by Yannis Adoniou) were particularly ingenious: the sinuous, stretchy veils of the Furies were an important part of the choreography.
The sets, with stark trees and a grassy hill (used by the dancers as a slide) and a terrific trapdoor descent into the Underworld, were just the right background for all this action.
Gary Thor Wedow, always a pleasure to hear as a conductor, did a great job with what must have been the unusually challenging circumstances of the last-minute replacement of the star. Adding to the fine solo and ensemble work in the orchestra was the authoritative sound of lutenist Stephen Stubbs’ contributions.
Rodriguez’s Eurydice was compelling and moving, and she worked well with Stenson. As Amor, Julianne Gearhart was a charming scene-stealer – charging onto the stage in her gilded bicycle, wearing tall boots and an adorable little costume with small gilt wings (congratulations again to designer Zamora).
Beth Kirchhoff’s chorus, strong and well trained, moved with elegant simplicity and seemed genuinely glad to be there.
So was the audience. A mighty ovation greeted the cast and production team, with a big crescendo for Andrew Stenson and his “a star is born” afternoon in McCaw Hall.