Brown Opera performs a classic myth

Opening tonight, Italian opera “Orfeo ed Euridice,” performed by Brown Opera Productions, takes a new look at the Greek myth of tragic lovers.

Composed by Christoph Willibald Gluck, the opera tells the tale of Orfeo (Sarah Hersman ’10) venturing into the underworld to retrieve his love Euridice (Nadine Dardee ’10). The opera has only three characters, each played by a woman in this performance because of the vocal range required by the roles. BOP performs this classical opera with powerful singers, dynamic dancers and a strong chamber orchestra from March 14 to 16 in Alumnae Hall.

This production was revolutionary when first performed in 1762 because of the simplicity of its plot. BOP embraces this purity and continues the opera’s tradition of innovation with an exquisite set, vivacious dancing and impassioned song. This production focuses on the themes of accepting change, man’s response to death and the irony of true love.

The opera engages the spectators from the beginning. It opens with a chorus of mourners holding candles and somber cloaks processing through the audience toward the tomb of Euridice. The mourners ascend the stage and meet the grieving Orfeo, strewn across his lover’s sarcophagus.

Orfeo threatens to kill himself but is stopped by the appearance of Amore (Alex Bacovik ’10). She states that the gods, moved by Orfeo’s profound grief, will allow him to venture into the underworld and retrieve Euridice. But he cannot look at her until they have once again reached the world of the living.

Orfeo embarks on his journey to the netherworld, with only his lute, which the producers replaced with a bronze hourglass, to protect him from the specters of hell.

Once in Hades, Orfeo encounters the Furies, played by dancers with teased hair and smoky eyes. They are “female personifications of vengeance,” said choreographer Elise Nuding ’11. In a venting of emotion, the Furies dance themselves into a frenzy “of bitterness and spitefulness,” Nuding added.

The dancers rhythmically taunt Orfeo in an attempt to scare him away, but with a resonating aria – an operatic soliloquy – he tames the Furies and passes into the Elysian Fields to find his love.

After the two lovers reunite, Euridice begins to question why Orfeo will not look at her – has death made her ugly or has he been unfaithful, she wonders. The opera finishes with an ironic and well-staged conclusion, adding a slight twist to the classic ending.

The opera derives it power from the passion behind it. “Opera and its grandness (are) so compelling,” said Masumi Hayashi-Smith ’10, director of “Orfeo ed Euridice.” “It is pure and complex at the same time.”

Opera may be seen as an art form of the Old World, but it is innovative here. It breaks the fourth wall and engages the audience from the actors’ entrance to the intricate set, said set designer Emily Dunne, a Rhode Island School of Design senior. Two serene white crystalline mountains fill the stage. The crystals then flow out into the audience and entwine the orchestra pit.

The inspiration for the set comes from “platonic solids, Greek mountain scapes and classical orders,” Dunne said. This set is “my architectural crowning achievement,” she added.

During the arias, images of blossoming flowers and fields that mirror the lyrical motifs are projected onto the white facades of the mountains, creating a visual bouquet that engages the audience.

“Orfeo ed Euridice” is the most classical performance BOP has yet produced. Founded in 2005, the group produces one major opera annually. BOP staged Gian Carlo Menotti’s “The Medium” – a 1950s opera – in 2006 and a modern interpretation of Enrique Granados’ “Goyescas” in 2007.

BOP’s previous two performances filled the house to capacity, Hayashi-Smith said.

Performances are at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, with a 2 p.m. performance on Sunday. Admission is free.