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Daniels’ forceful debut in Atlanta Opera’s ‘Orfeo ed Euridice’

David Daniels and  Katherine Whyte in Atlanta Opera's "Orfeo & Euridice."

David Daniels and Katherine Whyte in Atlanta Opera's "Orfeo & Euridice."

Opera review
Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice”

Atlanta Opera. 8 p.m. Nov. 20 and 3 p.m. Nov. 22. Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway. 404-881-8885, www.atlantaopera.org.

By Pierre Ruhe
A few years ago, soon after countertenor supremo David Daniels moved into a condo on Peachtree Street, the Atlanta Opera jumped at the first chance to book the star singer for its own stage. He has starred at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, along with most of the important opera houses in the world, and has sold out Atlanta’s Spivey Hall, proof of a devoted local following.
He is all but unmatched in the heroic countertenor repertoire, and landing him was a major next step in the development of the Atlanta Opera as it moves from local to regional to, one day, a national presence.
Daniels’ debut in Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice,” in a compelling and often beautiful production, counts as a milestone for the company. With two performances remaining, it should not be missed.
“Orfeo” is the Atlanta Opera’s first foray into pre-Mozart repertoire and is sung in the original 1762 version, with a few numbers from the composer’s later additions. At that world premiere, the hero Orpheus was a castrato — a singer unmanned before his voice broke in puberty, who grew into the vocal heft of a man but with the voice range of a woman. It’s a specific category lost forever but which Daniels restores, or approximates, convincingly, sensationally, well.
As his hell-and-back wife Euridice, Katherine Whyte sang with a very pretty but plain soprano, full of vigor and eager to communicate. Deanne Meek sang the silver-winged god Amor with elegance.
Harry Bicket, an energizing conductor and a master of historically informed style, accompanied the singers marvelously and had the modern-instrument opera orchestra sounding lean and pungent. Walter Huff’s chorus, which danced sweetly, also touched the sublime in “Torna, o bella.” (Is there a better opera chorus in America?)
The physical production, rented from Glimmerglass Opera, is mostly a treat. Costumes designed by Constance Hoffman tell us we’re in Gluck’s mid-18th century. And the sets designed by John Conklin show his penchant for broken ancient architecture and suggest a classical society that lies in ruins.
Directed by Lillian Groag, the show balances some stuffy literalism — the big rubber snake that kills Euridice is hacked to death and tossed off stage — with potent images, as when the peasant farmers hold their scythes at attention, and the farm tools at once signal the arrival of Death and look like black banners waving in the breeze.
Yet Groag’s direction — aside from Daniels’ own forceful portrayal — didn’t tap the dark psychology of the opera. Whyte’s Euridice, as she pleads for her husband to look at her, got a laugh from the audience, as if she were merely a shrewish and unreasonable wife. Groag didn’t poke fun at the story, but neither did she do her job and make us always believe in the drama. Thankfully Daniels, who is one stage for almost the entire 90-minute opera, keeps us rapt.

Pierre Ruhe blogs about opera on ArtsCriticATL

10 comments Add your comment

Maria

November 19th, 2009
2:13 pm

I wonder which performance Mr. Ruhe attended. I attended on opening night as well as the Tuesday evening performance… On Saturday evening, I was completely drawn into the story and felt that the audience around me was as well. I could feel Orfeo’s grief when he loses Euridice, and his anguish when she begs him to look at her.

Tuesday’s audience was entirely different, and never before have I noticed how an audience can affect the overall feeling of a performance. Tuesday’s audience just wasn’t easily drawn in. They appreciated the beauty of the performance, but they did not believe in it. However, I would beg to differ with Mr. Ruhe: having witnessed a performance by an enraptured audience, I believe that the director did a fine job.

John

November 19th, 2009
8:02 pm

I also attended the opera on Tuesday night, and I wonder if Mr. Ruhe saw the same performance that I did. The laughter Mr. Ruhe refers to was limited to a very small segment of the audience, several of whom were in a boisterous mood before the opera began. I was dismayed that the reviewer made a point of noting this inappropriate audience reaction (something that is beyond the control of any artist) while discounting the importance of dance in this production. Orpheus and Eurydice featured two dancers from the Atlanta Ballet, Daniel Mayo and Rachel van Buskirk, who were onstage more often than the principal singers. To ignore their contribution, and that of choreographer Keturah Stickann, does a disservice to the production, to Mr. Ruhe’s readers, and to Mr. Ruhe himself. Finally, the enthusiasm expressed for the performers during the curtain call – all of the ensemble, and not just David Daniels – belies Mr. Ruhe’s assertion that Ms. Groag’s production failed to connect with the audience. I believe, more accurately, that her direction failed to connect with one critic, and I’m sorry for his loss.

Pierre Ruhe

November 20th, 2009
12:39 pm

The dancers were, in fact, mentioned in the original review, although the sentence was cut for space. Here’s the mention: ” ‘Orfeo’ includes essential ballet sequences, made vital by a pair of dancers from Atlanta Ballet, Rachael Van Buskirk and Daniel Mayo.”

Also, John’s assertion that the audience’s reaction is beyond the control of the performers — “I was dismayed that the reviewer made a point of noting this inappropriate audience reaction (something that is beyond the control of any artist)” — is nonsensical. What is an audience supposed to react to? The libretto that they’ve studied at home before the show? The program notes? Tuesday evening, enough people all around me (in the balcony) chuckled at the suffering Euridice that it seemed entirely fair to question the director’s skills.
–Pierre, http://ArtsCriticATL.com

anonymous

November 20th, 2009
2:21 pm

Well if I was in the balcony and saw some guy go all the way to Hell to bring back his dead wife, I’d chuckle too, but I wouldn’t let my wife see me.

Agreed

November 22nd, 2009
1:14 pm

It is not a nonsensical assertion: the performers can do their best to appeal to the audience, but a truly inappropriate audience reaction (ie, rowdiness or disruptiveness) is not really in the control of the performers. Yes, the audience reacts to the performers, but I believe the point John was trying to make is that not every audience behavior is a reaction to the performance.
I am surprised that Mr. Ruhe, a critic and journalist, was unable to respond to criticism without insulting others’ opinions.

And not all of the chuckling was inappropriate. What about when Orfeo, in a desperate attempt to convince Euridice to follow him, holds out his arm and demands “Wife, obey me!” The scene is heartbreaking, and I, for one, welcomed a bit of laughter.

George McAlpin

November 23rd, 2009
5:47 pm

I agree with “Agreed”… Mr RUDE has gotten to the stage in his “career” that like many other self appointed arbiters of taste all he can do in reply to someone who doesnt appreciate his poor reviews is to insult them,…… He’s WAY past his sell-by date and has to go! Surely the arts community in this city deserve someone better than this critic!?

Lillian Groag

November 23rd, 2009
6:53 pm

It’s an accepted tradition in the theatre that its practioners NEVER answer a review no matter how bone-headed. However, Mahler said that tradition was the refuge of the lazy, so … here it goes.

There will always be some people that laugh inappropriately. There were some – apparently all friends of Mr. Ruhe as they seem to have been all around him – who did and … was that actually bad? It is a supremely ironic moment, that which Orfeo fears (and speaks about in great detail) actually comes to pass. It seems as if laughter of sorts (and this was discreet as well as small) wouldn’t be a bad response? I will remind Mr. Ruhe that I did not write the text, and the laughter was a reponse to the line.

Other than that, not a word for the sensational chorus? One of the best I have ever had the privilege to work with? People who sang as well as executed some very complex choreography without missing a note? Orfeo ed Euridice contains several ballets which we were not able to present but the Furies and Elysium include choreography which cannot be eluded. So the chorus did double duty: chorus and corps de ballet – this without being trained dancers. Nothing to say about that? Or the point of view of the production as an Enlightenment parable? Or the sets designed after contemporary Piranesi prints depicting his own idea of Hell?

I would have wished that Mr. Ruhe could have forgone remarks about the excellent Mr. Daniels’ new living arrangements and made a little more room to speak about the actual production and all its ideas, for or against. It seems to me that it is Mr.Ruhe who did not do his job, not me.

Thankfully the audiences have been immensely receptive with or without laughs. And … be very careful when you assign responsibility for what happens on stage. You never know.

Great ATL Guy

November 23rd, 2009
7:10 pm

Ms. Groag sounds a little bitter, and apparently has not learned yet that the best response to something that you don’t like is no response. Where is her class and decorum? And PS, Mr. Ruhe does mention the chorus reaching the sublime and being the best in America, perhaps Ms. Groag should read the review again, and in future, for reviews that don’t set well, don’t whine…. it is quite unattractive. Suck it up Lillian, it ain’t rocket science, just Gluck.

Lillian Groag

November 23rd, 2009
7:30 pm

Oh, dear … “unattractive”? “Class decorum”? Perish the thought. So artists are not allowed to have dialogue and anyone can print anything without expecting response? Reviewing the reviewer is an old established practice, ATL Guy. Don’t read it if you don’t like it. You dont’ swound like an uninterested party yourself.

Jim Glare

November 30th, 2009
5:28 pm

Hey, now, aren’t we all supposed to be on the same side here?

I don’t think it makes sense here that it’s the audience being discussed rather than the production. Of course, there is no such thing as a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ audience reaction. There are educated, uneducated, experienced and inexperienced audience members, and there is inappropriate audience behavior. (To the couple that spent half the first act of Flying Dutchman loudly messing around with plastic bags and candy wrappers directly behind me while feigning oblivion at my pointedly annoyed glares last season – I am looking at you.) But the essence of live theater of any kind is the immediacy and truth of the audience response. It can’t be “wrong,” but at the same time that doesn’t make it necessarily “right,” since by nature it’s influenced by the individual audience member and their knowledge, experience, preferences and temperament as well as what’s happening on the stage.

However, the reason we have critics is so that we can have a conversation about the performance that ideally rises above the happenstance of audience biases – most importantly the biases created by lack of knowledge and experience. In this case, reading both the review and the follow-up comments, it almost seems as though Pierre has substituted the judgment of the audience members near him for his own when it comes to the dramatic effectiveness of the third act. It would certainly make sense to mention audience reaction to substantiate his own perspective, but it doesn’t seem like that’s what’s going on here. His perspective seems to be absent. As a result, the conversation is just about the audience members that he overheard, and whether their reaction was appropriate or representative of the audience at large. These are not very interesting questions, and all the less interesting because they are impossible to answer. Who were these people? How many of them were there? Why were they laughing? We have no way to know, and this speculation misses the point.

It’s important to remember and note, as Pierre does, that this is a milestone production for the Atlanta Opera. Artistically important, with a high-caliber cast and conductor, and more significantly, reaping the rewards of years of focused effort building a truly great opera chorus (better than which in the United States, we can read above, there may or may not be), it’s one that marks the progress that the Atlanta Opera has made towards national prominence and that which this city has made artistically. Even Pierre’s review, I might note, is a sign of that progress, as he’s been in the habit of regularly eviscerating the efforts of our fine opera company for more than 10 years.

Better to focus on that, and perhaps at the same time reflect with gratitude that Pierre has been willing to engage in the discussion here, than worry too much about a few laughs and a director whose fine efforts may or may not have been unfairly maligned.