Neal Ford  |
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Neal's Opera Page

In order of performance.

2019


The Orpheus Project

location: English National Opera @ the London Colisium

The Orpheus myth is ancient, attributed to Plato and other writers from that era, about a most fabulous magician, who could make plants and stones weep when he played music. One part of the myth is particularly well known, about the fate of his new bride, Eurydice:

The most famous story in which Orpheus figures is that of his wife Eurydice. While walking among her people, the Cicones, in tall grass at her wedding, Eurydice was set upon by a satyr. In her efforts to escape the satyr, Eurydice fell into a nest of vipers and suffered a fatal bite on her heel. Her body was discovered by Orpheus who, overcome with grief, played such sad and mournful songs that all the nymphs and gods wept. On their advice, Orpheus traveled to the underworld. His music softened the hearts of Hades and Persephone, who agreed to allow Eurydice to return with him to earth on one condition: he should walk in front of her and not look back until they both had reached the upper world. He set off with Eurydice following, and, in his anxiety, as soon as he reached the upper world, he turned to look at her, forgetting that both needed to be in the upper world, and she vanished for the second time, but now forever.

The first popular opera was based on the Orpheus story (L'Orfeo by Monteverdi in 1607), and it has been treated as a subject of opera many times, obviously for it's sympathetic subject matter.

In 2019, the English National Opera staged an interesting event: four Orpheus operas from different composers and eras on subsequent nights (when I happened to be in London anyway):

The last of these, Orphée, is the third of Philip Glass' Cocteau Trilogy, operas based on the films of famous French director Jean Cocteau; I had seen the other two in the trilogy but never this one (yet).

Orpheus in the Underworld Jacques Offenbach

  • synopsis
    • Act I London, 1957

      Orpheus and Eurydice fall in love, marry, and are soon expecting their first child. Disaster strikes, and the young couple cannot comprehend the tragedy that has befallen them. Public Opinion arrives in a black cab and offers Eurydice a sympathetic ear and a shoulder to cry on.

      Eurydice begs Public Opinion to drive her off to the countryside. There she meets Aristaeus, a handsome shepherd and beekeeper (who is actually Pluto, the god of Hades, in disguise). Eurydice is instantly attracted to him.

      Orpheus arrives and also meets with Pluto (now dressed as a Salesman). Pluto tells him that he saw Eurydice earlier – with Aristaeus. Orpheus vows to kill his rival. Pluto offers Orpheus a box of poisonous snakes.

      Orpheus and Eurydice meet. He tells her that he knows about Aristaeus; they argue bitterly before she throws her wedding ring at him.

      Pluto, once again disguised as Aristaeus, coaxes Eurydice into the cornfield. She is bitten by a snake, at which point Aristaeus reveals his true identity – Pluto! Before she dies her welcome death, Eurydice leaves a note for Orpheus. Pluto and Eurydice set off for Hell.

      When Orpheus returns, he discovers Eurydice’s note and collapses in relief. No more grief, confusion or pain. Public Opinion reminds him that he must do the right thing: he must go to Olympus and beg Jupiter to help get Eurydice back.

    • Act II On Mount Olympus

      The gods stir from their slumbers. When the goddess Diana’s arrival is announced by a loud blast on her hunting horn, they soon wake up. She recounts to them her encounter with the mortal Acteon.

      Eurydice’s abduction has come to Jupiter’s attention. The gods assume Jupiter is responsible as his dalliances with mortals are legendary. They accuse him of being a hypocrite and are furious with him for preventing their fun whilst he is having all the fun himself. On this occasion, however, Jupiter is blameless and he dispatches Cupid down to Hell to fetch Pluto.

      Cupid returns with Pluto. Jupiter accuses Pluto of taking Eurydice. Heaven and Hell shake at the hypocrisy of Jupiter’s words: mortals and gods alike have lost their faith in him. Revolution is in the air and the gods now want Pluto to be in charge.

      Cupid announces the arrival of Orpheus and Public Opinion at Mount Olympus. When Orpheus sings of his longing for Eurydice, the gods are moved. Orpheus confirms it was indeed Pluto who abducted Eurydice. Jupiter resolves to descend to Hell in order to ensure justice is done, and all the other gods decide to follow him there.

    • Act III In Hell

      Pluto’s servant John Styx leads Eurydice through the Underworld and locks her in a cell.

      Distraught, Eurydice lashes out at Pluto and rejects the advances of drunken Styx. Styx boasts to her of his status when alive, and, admits that he now has to drink himself into oblivion in order to take orders from Pluto. When Jupiter and Pluto arrive, Styx hastily hides Eurydice. Jupiter searches the cell for Eurydice in vain, until he notices something peeping out from under the bed. He says nothing but intends to return alone later to investigate. Pluto leads Jupiter off to the party he is throwing for the gods.

      Eurydice emerges from her hiding-place. A swarm of bee-ghosts warn her about Jupiter’s intentions towards her. Jupiter returns in the form of a fly, enters Eurydice’s cell and begins to seduce her. Eventually, he reveals his true identity. He declares that he wants her all for himself and promises to take her to Olympus. They leave for Pluto’s party.

      Styx and Pluto return. When they can’t find Eurydice, Pluto realises that Jupiter has snatched her.

    • Act IV

      A riotous Bacchanal is in full swing. All the gods are drunk. Dressed as a Baccante, Eurydice is persuaded to perform the Song of Bacchus. Jupiter forces the gods to dance a stately minuet until Eurydice leads them all in a wild can-can.

      Having distracted everyone, Jupiter and Eurydice attempt to make their escape but their path is blocked by Pluto. Eurydice accuses Pluto of exploiting her sadness and she breaks down in renewed grief. Both Jupiter and Pluto laugh at her – at the end of the day, they are both on the same side. While Jupiter still intends to take her to Olympus, Pluto vengefully reminds Jupiter of the promise he made to Orpheus: that he would return Eurydice to him.

      Eurydice hears the distant sound of Orpheus’ violin. He enters, accompanied by Public Opinion. Orpheus’ music heals the wounds in his and Eurydice’s relationship and the couple reaffirm their love. All sense the energy and truth of the couple’s love for one another and the gods toast their future happiness.

      Just as the couple are about to leave Hell, jealous Jupiter imposes a condition: Orpheus must walk ahead of his wife and not look back to check she’s following him. Disobey and she will be lost to him forever. Orpheus and Eurydice start out for home when Jupiter uses a thunderbolt to startle Orpheus, who turns abruptly and cannot help but look at Eurydice, who then vanishes. Pluto thinks she will be his again, but in fact she’s been promised to Bacchus. While Public Opinion consoles Orpheus, Eurydice leads the gods in a frenzied dance. After a fireball explosion, all that remains are Public Opinion and Orpheus, the latter broken and bereft.

  • review

    The first of the Orpheus operas and the lightest comedy, set in a slightly surreal world. The tagline for the opera in advertisements was Heaven is overrated, Hell is where the party is. True to the promise, it was a raunchy comedy, with Orpheus as a simple country bumpkin and Pluto as a slick snake-carrying con man. Highly entertaining and fast paced, with much leaning towards a Broadway/West End spectacular.

The Mask of Orpheus /Harrison Birtwistle/

  • Synopsis
    • Parodos

      Apollo presides at the birth of Orpheus and gives him the gifts of speech, poetry and music. Orpheus’ first memory is of his heroic voyage on the Argo with Jason and his men.

    • Act I
      • Scene 1

        Orpheus falls in love with Eurydice. She agrees to marry him

        • First Passing Cloud: The Myth of Dionysus. The Titans captured Dionysus, who tried in vain to escape by assuming the form of a bull, a snake and a lion. Although they killed him, Rhea, his grandmother, reconstituted him and brought him up as a woman. He discovered wine and its effects.

        In the wedding ceremony, Hymen (God of Marriage) is invoked and the priests ask ritual questions; but there are bad omens: Hymen arrives late and Eurydice stumbles repeatedly over her answers in the ritual. Not even Orpheus can dispel this atmosphere with his love-song for Eurydice.

      • Scene 2

        Two versions of the death of Eurydice are presented simultaneously. Eurydice wanders by the river.

        • Second Passing Cloud: The Myth of Lycurgus. Lycurgus and his men fought Dionysus and captured his followers. Rhea released them and made Lycurgus so mad that he killed his own son thinking he was pruning a vine. The earth turned barren at the crime. Dionysus returned and Lycurgus, taken by his people to a mountain, was torn apart by wild horses.

        Aristaeus, Man and Hero, make love at the same time to Eurydice, Woman and Heroine. In one case she resists and in the other she does not. In both versions she dies from the bite of a water-snake.

        • First Allegorical Flower: The Myth of the Anemone. Venus loved the beautiful Adonis. Despite her warnings, he hunted wild boar and was fatally wounded in the genitals. Brought by her swans to his side, she could not save him but, in sorrow, she decreed that every year his death should be commemorated. From his blood sprang the anemone, a flower whose petals fall quickly in the wind.

        Aristaeus tells Orpheus of Eurydice’s death.

      • Scene 3

        First time distortion: Orpheus imagines it was he, not Aristaeus, who saw Eurydice die.

        There are echoes of the love duet during Eurydice’s funeral ceremony, and the priests invoke Hermes, who, it is hoped, will guide her to the Underworld. They enact a ritual of the Tree of Life. Orpheus is unable to accept that he was powerless to save his wife. He leaves the ceremony to consult the Oracle of the Dead.

        The Oracles envies his magic and gives him three clues to the Underworld in exchange for his magical power of music: ‘Always face the way of the sun’; ‘Choose without choosing’; ‘Never address anyone directly’. But when the Oracle tries to copy Orpheus’ song, all she can manage is hysterical screeching.

        Orpheus imagines he can find his way to the Underworld. He describes the 17 arches of the aqueduct that connects the world of the living to that of the dead. Eurydice is transformed into myth.

    • Act II

      Second time distortion: another version of Eurydice’s death, in which she is killed by a giant snake.

      Orpheus Man, exhausted, has a deep and terrible sleep, in which he dreams that he, as Orpheus Hero, descends through the arches into the Underworld. All the figures he confronts are grotesque versions of the characters he has encountered in the first act. As the Oracle instructed, he walks backwards, always facing the sun he is leaving behind; during his descent there are many obstacles because it is forbidden for the living to enter the Underworld.

      • Scene 1: The Descent
        • Arch 1: Countryside. Orpheus sings to Charon and crosses the River Styx.
        • Arch 2: Crowds. Orpheus’ music brings tears, for the first time, to the eyes of the Furies.
        • Arch 3: Evening. The Judges of the Dead foretell Orpheus’ death. He sees a vision of Eurydice.
        • Arch 4: Contrasts. Orpheus drinks from the pool of memory but refuses to drink from the pool of forgetfulness. He has a second vision of Eurydice.
        • Arch 5: Dying. Orpheus sees those in torment as he passes.
        • Arch 6: Wings. His magic overcomes even the fiercest of the characters in the Underworld.
        • Arch 7: Colour. At last Orpheus reaches the centre of the Underworld and stands before its rulers: Hades, his wife Persephone, and Hecate. He fails to see their resemblance to himself, Eurydice or the Oracle.
        • Arch 8: Secrecy. Orpheus continues to sing.
        • Arch 9: Glass. He makes his escape.
        • Scene 2: The Return
        • Arch 10: Buildings. He is surrounded by wispy shadows resembling Eurydice.
        • Arch 11: Weather. Although Eurydice shadows dance around him, he makes no choice.
        • Arch 12: Eyes. Orpheus begins his return, imagining that the real Eurydice is following him, but it is Persephone.
        • Arch 13: Knives. Persephone stumbles and another Eurydice takes her place. Orpheus overcomes the same obstacles as on his descent: in turn they utter screams and disappear. Eurydice tries to follow but the dead cannot leave the Underworld. One form of Euridice takes the place of another. As Orpheus journeys, he hears Apollo’s voice in his head urging him to sing.
        • Arch 14: Animals. Orpheus crosses the River Styx. Charon refuses to take Eurydice and she falls back. As Orpheus emerges into the sunlight, he awakes. Eurydice is already fading from his memory.
        • Arch 15: Ropes. Orpheus has lost Eurydice for ever.
        • Arch 16: Order. Orpheus realises his journey was a dream and re-enacts it as Orpheus Hero.
        • Arch 17: Fear. Orpheus mourns Eurydice and rejects the three women who offer to marry him.

        Second Allegorical Flower: The Myth of the Hyacinth. Apollo and the youth Hyacinth competed at the discus. Apollo’s returning discus killed Hyacinth and the god could not save him. He changed him into a flower, with the mournful Greek characters, ‘Ai-Ai’ upon its petals.

        Orpheus is so desolate that he hangs himself.

    • Act III

      The structure of the act is based on the movement of tides on an imaginary beach. Nine episodes of the myth are presented in an artificial time-sequence, which starts by receding into the past, then comes forward into the future and finally begins to return to the past. Between these episodes, Orpheus sings the verses of his ‘Song of Magic’, eventually challenging Apollo.

      Third time distortion: Orpheus Hero is rejected by the Underworld and is re-born as a myth.

      • Episode 1

        Orpheus Hero re-enacts his journey out of the Underworld with Eurydice. She dies and he hangs himself.

      • Episode 2

        Orpheus Man sings of his imaginary descent to the Underworld.

      • Episode 3

        The death of Eurydice is seen again but this time observed by Orpheus Man and Hero, instead of Aristaeus.

        • Second Allegorical Flower: The Myth of the Lotus. Beautiful Dryope was suckling her child by a pool. When she plucked a lotus flower, to her horror she found drops of blood upon her hand. She did not know that the nymph, Lotus, had been changed into the flower to escape the lust of Pryapus. She too became a lotus tree. Her husband and father protected the tree from animals and allowed her son to play in the shade of what had been his mother.

        Orpheus remembers his imaginary ascent from the Underworld.

      • Episode 4

        Orpheus Hero re-enacts his journey out of the Underworld with Eurydice. She dies and he hangs himself.

      • Episode 5

        Aristaeus is punished by his bees. Orpheus consoles him. But Zeus is angered by Orpheus’ presumption in revealing divine mysteries in his arcane poetry and music, and strikes him dead with a thunderbolt.

      • Episode 6

        Orpheus Myth is sacrificed and dismembered by the Dionysiac women. His head is thrown into the River Hebrus.

      • Episode 7

        The head of Orpheus floats down the river. He still murmurs piteously. Orpheus challenges the sun-god with his song.

      • Episode 8

        Orpheus Myth has become an oracle and is consulted by Aristaeus. A snake, which tries to silence the oracle, is killed by Apollo. But the god himself finally silences Orpheus for rivalling his own oracle at Delphi.

        • Third Passing Cloud: The Myth of Pentheus. Dionysus dressed Pentheus as a woman so that he could penetrate secretly into the Dionysiac women’s revels. He tried to stop them tearing a bull apart with their bare hands, and instead, in their frenzy, they tore him apart. His own mother ripped off his head.
      • Episode 9

        The sacrifice of Orpheus Myth is continued as if the two previous episodes had not happened. The Dionysiac women eat his flesh.

      • Exodos

        The myth of Orpheus decays.

        • The ‘Passing Clouds of Abandon’ and ‘Allegorical Flowers of Reason’: six other myths related to Dionysus and metamorphosis interrupt the main Orpheus myth at moments of calm and crisis.
  • review

    This is the second most disturbing piece of art I've seen (because everyone will ask, number one is located at Majdanek). It premiered in 1986 with a custom electronic sound track made with synthesizers to add "aura" and sound effects. Rather than tell the Orpheus myth once, this opera tells all the variations at the same time, moving back and forth in time. Each of the three main characters (Orpheus, Eurydice, and Aristaeus) each have three representations on stage: man, hero, and myth, where /myth/s in this production don't sing but rather perform elaborate acrobatics, sometimes suspended. Different versions of the story, sometimes time shifted, happen at different points on the stage by different combinations of the three characters. For example, in some versions of the myth, Orpheus hangs himself in grief when he returns without Eurydice–this happens on stage several times, in different versions of the telling of the myth.

    I described this opera as a four hour nightmare with two thirty minute intermissions (but nightmare in a horror-movie-good kind of way). The first 15 minutes of the opera, no actual words are sung–Orpheus has been reborn (in this production, but emerging suddenly from the depths of a bathtub) and makes vowelly vocalizations while trying trying to remember how to speak. The music has the composers distinctive style, borrowing from a bit from minimalist but heavily from atonal and serial music, much of which features organized discordance, which contributes to the nightmare feel of this opera. Because the action constantly overlaps, and the music keeps the listener off balance, the effect is a deja vu like trance, where the same scenes keep repeating slightly differently.

    I've never seen a work of art that so successfully invokes the sensation of a nightmare, and I'm not sure I want to see one that's more successful.

Orpheus & Eurydice Christoph Willibald Gluck

  • synopsis
    • Act I

      Eurydice is dead. The mourners depart and the bereaved Orpheus is left to call to his wife, but only an echo answers him. He can take no more, and grief gives way to anger. He resolves to journey to the Underworld and reclaim Eurydice from the dead.

      Love appears and tells Eurydice that he has permission to enter the forbidden kingdom of the dead. If he uses the power of music to placate the Underworld’s inhabitants, Eurydice and he will be united once more. However, a condition is imposed: Orpheus must not look at his wife until they have returned to the surface; otherwise, she will be lost to him forever. He foresees Eurydice’s anxiety and distress at such behaviour at their reunion. He prepares himself for his journey.

    • Act II

      Orpheus stands on the forbidding threshold of the Underworld. His sublime singing beguiles those dispossessed beings he meets and eventually they allow him to continue on his way.

    • Act III

      Eurydice and the other Blessed Spirits are seen in the tranquil haven of the Elysian Fields. Orpheus marvels at the radiant, other-worldly calm of the surroundings. Eurydice is restored to him, but he is careful not to look at her.

    • Act IV

      As they make their return from the Underworld, Orpheus urges Eurydice to hurry up and follow him. She cannot comprehend his uncharacteristically impatient behaviour, and rebukes him for his apparent indifference to her. Feeling weak from the demands of the journey and convinced Orpheus no longer loves her, Eurydice is close to collapsing. Orpheus succumbs to temptation, turns to look at her and she dies immediately. He inveighs against such cruelty, acknowledges it is his fault, and laments once again the death of his beloved wife.

      Inconsolable at his irrecoverable loss, Orpheus prepares to kill himself. He is interrupted by Love, who declares that Orpheus has shown more than enough proof of his fidelity and that Eurydice will be restored to him at once. Together with their friends, Orpheus and Eurydice celebrate their reunion and the power of love.

  • review

    The most traditional of the three operas, the role of Orpheus was a "pants role" (sung by a female lead) as castrati are fortunately rarer than in Gluck's time. Great multi-level set and depiction of hell.

Orphée Philip Glass

  • synopsis
    • Act I
      • Scene 1: The Café

        The celebrated poet Orphée talks with another poet friend. They observe a group of young people gathered around Cégeste, a young up-and-coming poet. Orphée is fascinated by Cégeste’s patron, the Princess. The drunken Cégeste starts a brawl, which soon spreads throughout the café, resulting in the arrival of the police. Cégeste manages to escape from the police; he runs outside where he is struck by two motorcyclists. The shocked crowd watches as the motorcyclists enter carrying Cégeste’s lifeless body. The Princess and her chauffeur, Heurtebise, intervene, and the Princess orders Orphée to help them.

      • Scene 2: The Road

        The Princess’s car drives along a desolate country lane. The Princess angrily dismisses Orphée’s many questions. The sound of approaching motorcycles is heard and the two riders enter and collect the body.

      • Scene 3: The Chalet

        The motorcyclists carry Cégeste’s body into the Princess’s chalet. The Princess apparently brings Cégeste back to life and leads him from the room through a mirror. Orphée attempts to follow them but is unable to pass through and, overcome with dizziness, he faints. Heurtebise returns and offers to escort Orphée home.

      • Scene 4: Orphée’s House

        Orphée’s wife, Eurydice, waits anxiously for her missing husband. Her friend, and leader of the women-only League des Femmes, Aglaonice, waits with her, along with the Police Commissaire. A newspaper reporter interrupts their conversation: he wants to talk to Orphée about the accident, but the Commissaire quickly gets rid of him. Finally, Orphée arrives, followed by Heurtebise. He abruptly dismisses both the Commissaire and Aglaonice. Preoccupied, Orphée interrupts his wife when she tries to tell him that she is pregnant, goes abruptly to his bedroom and leaves Eurydice with Heurtebise.

      • Scene 5: Orphée’s Bedroom

        The Princess enters Orphée’s bedroom and observes him sleeping.

      • Scene 6: Orphée’s Studio

        Orphée has become obsessed with listening to the radio. He transcribes the mysterious messages it broadcasts, which he considers to be poetic inspiration. He dismisses Eurydice who turns to Heurtebise for comfort. The Commissaire telephones: he wants to see Orphée in his office.

      • Scene 7: Commissaire’s Office

        The group of young poets and artists from the café, including Orphée’s poet friend and Aglaonice, accuse Orphée of plagiarising Cégeste’s work. The Commissaire reminds them that Orphée is not only a celebrated poet but also a nationally respected figure and dismisses their accusation. They threaten to find their own justice.

      • Scene 8: The Chase

        On his way to the Commissaire’s office, Orphée sees the Princess and tries to follow her. He is spotted by a group of girls who pursue him for his autograph.

      • Scene 9: Orphée’s House

        Orphée comes back having escaped from the autograph hunters. Eurydice is asleep in the bedroom, while Heurtebise is alone in the study. Eurydice, upset by Orphée’s behaviour, decides to visit Aglaonice. As she dashes out of the door, motorcycles are heard once again; Heurtebise runs outside, returning a moment later with the dying Eurydice, whom he places on the bed. The Princess and Cégeste enter the bedroom through the mirror. Heurtebise tries to tell Orphée that Eurydice is close to death, but the poet ignores him, preferring instead to go on with transcribing the words from the radio. When the messages cease, Orphée finally moves away from the radio and Heurtebise informs him that Eurydice is now dead. However, if he is willing to follow, Orphée will be able to reclaim Eurydice from the Princess, whom Heurtebise reveals to be Death. Orphée and Heurtebise leave together through the mirror.

    • Act II
      • Reprise

        Heurtebise tries to tell Orphée that Eurydice is close to death, but the poet ignores him, preferring instead to go on with transcribing the words from the radio. When the messages cease Orphée finally moves away from the radio and Heurtebise informs him that Eurydice is now dead. However, if he is willing to follow, Orphée will be able to reclaim Eurydice from the Princess, whom Heurtebise reveals to be Death. Orphée and Heurtebise leave together through the mirror.

      • Scene 1: Journey to the Underworld

        On their way to the Underworld, Orphée and Heurtebise encounter various roaming figures unable to cease the habits formed during their lifetimes.

      • Scene 2: The Trial

        The Princess is at a tribunal hearing before a panel of nameless judges for taking Eurydice’s life without authority. Cégeste, the Princess, Orphée, Heurtebise and Eurydice are each questioned, and it emerges that the Princess is in love with Orphée, and Heurtebise with Eurydice. The judges withdraw to consider their verdict.

      • Scene 3: Orphée and the Princess

        Orphée declares his love for the Princess and swears to return to her regardless of what may happen.

      • Scene 4: The Verdict

        The judges deliver their verdict: the Princess is given provisional freedom; Orphée is free on condition he keep silent about all he has witnessed; and Eurydice is allowed to resume her life with Orphée on condition that he never looks directly at her again. A single look, and he will lose her forever. At his own suggestion, Heurtebise is appointed to accompany them.

      • Scene 5: Return to Orphée’s House

        Orphée, Eurydice and Heurtebise leave the Underworld.

      • Scene 6: Orphée’s House

        Orphée and Eurydice discover the impossible reality of complying with the imposed condition.

      • Scene 7: Orphée’s Studio

        To avoid Eurydice, Orphée retreats into his studio where he resumes taking notes from the radio. Eventually, his gaze falls on his wife and she immediately disappears into the Underworld. The mob of angry youngsters confronts Orphée about Cégeste’s death. Heurtebise hands Orphée a revolver, and during a struggle with the Poet, Orphée is shot.

      • Scene 8: Orphée’s Return

        In the Underworld, Orphée is reunited with the Princess. However, she orders Heurtebise to return Orphée to his life.

      • Scene 9: Orphée’s Bedroom
      • Orphée enters through the mirror and finds Eurydice in their bedroom. Orphée resumes his work, seemingly unaware of all that has happened. In the Underworld, the Princess and Heurtebise are led away.
  • review

    This is the one I was really waiting for, the only one of the Cocteau operas I haven't seen. Staged like a modern Broadway/West End play, it featured a high-tech set that used projections and cleaver camera tricks to imagine the portals to hell. In the movie, Cocteau used mercury to create a mirrors, which the Princess (of Death) used to travel to and from the underworld; in the opera, they used frames and camera projections that shifted into tunnels when she lead someone to the underworld. The music was stellar and the staging was captivating.

Orpheus Summary

Four very different visions of hell and tellings of the story. My favorite was Orphée; the most unexpected punch in the gut was The Mask of Orpheus, which shows just how powerful a piece of art can be, combining the visual and auditory in way unique to opera.


Don Giovanni /Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

location: Chicgo Lyric Opera

synopsis

  • Act 1.
    • Scene 1: The street outside the Commendatore’s house

      Leporello stands guard for Don Giovanni’s latest conquest. Suddenly Giovanni rushes out pursued by Donna Anna, who calls for help. Her father challenges Giovanni and is murdered by him. Returning with her fiancé, Don Ottavio, Anna vows to have vengeance.

    • Scene 2: A village square

      Giovanni, who had previously abandoned Donna Elvira, now flees, referring her to Leporello, who recites the catalogue of Giovanni’s conquests. Masetto and Zerlina, soon to be married, celebrate with their friends. Giovanni orders Leporello to escort Masetto and the peasants to his villa. Once Masetto is gone, Giovanni seduces Zerlina. Elvira warns the girl to avoid Giovanni. Anna and Ottavio request Giovanni’s help in punishing the Commendatore’s unknown assassin. Elvira returns, but Giovanni dismisses her as a madwoman. Once they’ve gone, Anna suddenly realizes that this was, in fact, her father’s murderer.

    • Scene 3: The garden of Don Giovanni’s villa:

      Giovanni orders Leporello to prepare a feast for that evening. Zerlina persuades Masetto to forgive her. Giovanni resumes his pursuit of Zerlina and, upon discovering Masetto, persuades the couple to enter the villa with him. Anna, Elvira, and Ottavio arrive, masked and intent on vengeance. Leporello invites them – on Giovanni’s behalf – to attend the party

    • Scene 4: The ballroom of Don Giovanni’s villa

      Giovanni tells Leporello to distract Masetto, then leads Zerlina to another room. Suddenly her screams alarm the party guests. Giovanni blames Leporello for attacking Zerlina. Anna, Elvira, and Ottavio unmask and denounce Giovanni.

  • Act 2.
    • Scene 1: The street below Donna Elvira’s hotel

      Leporello wants to quit working for Giovanni, but is induced to stay. Giovanni exchanges clothes with Leporello in order to seduce Elvira’s maid unrecognized. Elvira appears at a window of her hotel room, lamenting Giovanni’s cruelty. He asks her to come to him, but it’s with the disguised Leporello that she leaves. Giovanni then serenades the maid. When Masetto arrives with some armed villagers, Giovanni sends the men off and detains Masetto, whom he beats viciously. Masetto’s cries bring Zerlina, who comforts him.

    • Scene 2: A church

      Leporello eludes Elvira but is discovered by Anna, Ottavio, Masetto, and Zerlina. Leporello reveals his true identity, begs for mercy, and escapes. Ottavio asks his companions to comfort Anna until he can return as the messenger of her vengeance. Elvira admits that although Giovanni has betrayed her, she still pities him.

    • Scene 3: A cemetery

      Giovanni tells Leporello about his latest adventures. The two hear the Commendatore’s voice emanating from a statue. Giovanni orders Leporello to invite the statue to dinner.

    • Scene 4: Donna Anna’s house

      Anna begs Ottavio to wait to marry her until her grief for her father has subsided. When he berates her for treating him cruelly, she assures him of her love.

    • Scene 5: Don Giovanni’s dining room

      Giovanni is enjoying food and wine when Elvira bursts in, imploring him to change his ways, but he ignores her pleading. The statue arrives and orders him to repent. Giovanni refuses and is dragged to hell. Leporello tells Anna, Ottavio, Elvira, Zerlina, and Masetto what has happened, and all proclaim the end of an evildoer.

review

Great production by the Chicago lyric opera, set in 1920's Italy with Don Giovanni as a coke-head womanizer. Elivira in particular was great.

Akhnaten

location: Met Opera

synopsis

  • Act I: Year 1 of Akhnaten’s reign. Thebes.
    • Scene 1: Funeral of Amenhotep III

      The opera begins with the death of Amenhotep III. We see him first revealed both as a corpse and as a ghostly figure, reciting words taken from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. During the ceremony, we see a sacred ritual performed in which the body’s organs are carefully taken out and placed into canopic jars and the body is wrapped and embalmed. A ceremony takes place that represents a ritual occurring in the Book of the Dead, in which the pharaoh’s heart is weighed against a feather; if his heart is as light as this, it will ensure that Amenhotep will travel through into the afterlife.

    • Scene 2: Coronation of Akhnaten

      The figure of Amenhotep’s son steps forward and the coronation ceremony begins. The new pharaoh is dressed in sacred robes, and the crowns representing Upper and Lower Egypt are brought together to symbolize Amenhotep IV’s power over all of Egypt. Once he is crowned, the new pharaoh rises up the stairs to make his first pronouncement.

    • Scene 3: The Window of Appearances

      At the Window of Appearances, the pharaoh reveals his intentions to form a monotheistic religion. He changes his name from Amenhotep IV, meaning “spirit of Amon,” to Akhnaten, meaning “spirit of Aten.” Aten, the sun god, is glorified by Akhnaten, his wife Nefertiti, and Queen Tye, his mother. As the trio makes their pronouncement at the window, the sun rises behind them.

  • Act II: Years 5 to 15. Thebes and Akhetaten.
    • Scene 1: The Temple

      Akhnaten and Queen Tye begin to make the changes that he has promised. He leads a revolt to banish the old religion and replace it with his own. Akhnaten enters the temple and finds the priests performing the old religious rituals. Akhnaten banishes them and forms the new order of Aten.

    • Scene 2: Akhnaten and Nefertiti

      Akhnaten and Nefertiti affirms their love for each other.

    • Scene 3: The City

      The site for a new city is chosen carefully. The new city of Akhetaten—“The City of the Horizon of Aten”—is built in praise of the new religion.

    • Scene 4: Hymn

      Akhnaten sings a private prayer to his god. His vision of a new religion and a new society is complete.

  • Act III: Year 17 and the present. Akhetaten.
    • Scene 1: The Family

      Akhnaten and Nefertiti dwell in an insular world of their own creation with their six daughters. Meanwhile, Queen Tye is uneasy. She senses unrest beyond the city’s walls. Crowds gather outside the gates, and letters arrive expressing increasing concern about Akhnaten’s self-imposed isolation.

    • Scene 2: Attack and Fall

      The priests of Amon emerge from the gathering crowds and break through the palace doors. The daughters try to escape and are drawn away from Akhnaten and into the swelling mass. Queen Tye and Nefertiti are also separated from Akhnaten, who is finally killed.

    • Scene 3: The Ruins

      Akhnaten’s father mourns his son’s death. Meanwhile, the new pharaoh, the young Tutankhamun, is crowned in a ceremony similar to that of his father, and the old polytheistic religion is restored.

    • Scene 4: Intercutting this ceremony, a group of modern-day students is listening to a lecture given by a professor.
  • Epilogue

    The ghosts of Akhnaten, Nefertiti, and Queen Tye are heard from the ancient world once again.

review

This is the third time I've seen this production (once in London and another in LA), and it still mesmerized. This is a quite abstract opera, sung mostly in ancient languages, that tells a symbolic story of the first king to try to create a monotheistic religion. The director uses stunning tableaus and jugglers(!) to illustrate what's going on in the opera. For example, the jugglers are amazingly accurate, but when the revolution against Akhnaten's ideas occurs, they start dropping balls as a sign of discord. And, in the final scene, each of the main characters, reappearing from the underworld, slowly roll leftover balls to off stage, symbolizing passing the idea into the future.

Manon Lescaut Giacomo Puccini

location: San Francisco Opera

synopsis

Mid-18th century, France and Louisiana

  • Act I

    Edmondo leads the merrymaking of a group of students. Des Grieux responds to taunts of being an unhappy lover by declaring that he knows nothing of love. He then serenades all the ladies present.

    The coach from Arras arrives, and all—including Des Grieux—are struck by the beauty of Manon as she alights, accompanied by her brother Lescaut and the roué Geronte de Ravoir. The girl waits for Lescaut while he enters the inn to arrange for rooms. Des Grieux approaches her and asks her name. When he learns that she is on her way to a convent against her will, he begs her to meet him later to find a way to change her fate. Reluctantly she promises to return, then goes into the inn. Des Grieux admits to himself that he is already in love with her.

    Lescaut confides to Geronte that he disagrees with his parents' plans for Manon, whom he is accompanying only out of a sense of duty. Geronte invites Lescaut and his sister to dinner, then excuses himself to talk with the innkeeper. Lescaut is soon drawn into a card game with the students. Edmondo overhears Geronte ordering a carriage and informs Des Grieux that the old man is planning to abduct Manon. She finds Des Grieux, having kept her promise. He tells her of the planned abduction. Edmondo returns, letting them know that everything is ready. The lovers escape in Geronte's carriage. He soon discovers what has happened and is mocked by the students, but Lescaut tells him to be patient: Manon's fondness for luxury will eventually make it possible to lure her away from Des Grieux.

  • Act II

    Weeks later, now ensconced in Geronte's house, Manon is with her hairdresser, who is seeing to her elegant coiffure. Lescaut admires her, congratulating her on the splendor of her surroundings. Manon asks about Des Grieux, confessing that the luxuries of her new life have not brought her true happiness. Lescaut tells her that Des Grieux still adores her, and that he is gambling in the hope of increasing his fortune. If that happens, he will then be able to meet Manon among the fashionable habitués of the casinos. Manon is touched by Des Grieux's fidelity, but her pensive mood is interrupted by a group of musicians. A dancing master appears with Geronte and a group of gentlemen, who are led by Manon in a minuet.

    Once Geronte has left to order a carriage, Des Grieux slips into the room. He angrily confronts Manon, who begs him to forgive her for deserting him. She finally breaks down his resistance. When Geronte surprises the two with his return, he reminds Manon that she is expected at a party. He leaves to wait for her in the carriage. Des Grieux plans to escape with Manon, but also reproaches her for her love of luxury. Lescaut bursts in to announce that Geronte has gone for the police. The three are about to leave when Manon pauses to collect her jewels. It is too late, for the police arrive and arrest her.

  • Act III

    Intermezzo: The Journey to Le Havre

    Des Grieux and Lescaut have bribed a guard to rescue Manon. While Des Grieux speaks to her through the prison window, Lescaut goes off to complete the necessary arrangements. A lamplighter passes, singing a cynical song. A shot rings out—Lescaut's plan has been foiled. The soldiers call the names of the women who are being deported. As Manon takes her place with the others, Des Grieux is overcome with grief at their separation. Despite warnings from the guards, he refuses to leave Manon's side. Finally he pleads with the ship's captain to join the crew, no matter how menial the position. The captain agrees, and Des Grieux rushes into Manon's arms.

  • Act IV

    With Des Grieux courageously supporting her, the exhausted Manon finds herself on a deserted plain in Louisiana. Uncertain whether to stay with her or to go search for help, Des Grieux finally rushes off. Alone, and no longer compelled to bolster her lover's spirits, Manon is overwhelmed by terror and despair. Once Des Grieux returns, she has only a few moments with him before she dies.

review

Sumptuous production of Puccini's first hit opera. This one gets dark, with fallen women branded on stage before being shipped off to (eventually) die in Louisiana.

Author: Neal Ford

Created: 2019-12-01 Sun 11:10

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