Two strikingly different operas opened this past weekend on opposite sides of town, and yet they converged emotionally in a couple of unexpected ways.
L.A. Opera’s presentation Saturday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s 1762 opera Orpheus & Eurydice, a romantic retelling of the Greek myth in which Orpheus (portrayed by Russian tenor Maxim Mironov) descends into Hades to rescue his beloved Eurydice (American soprano Lisette Oropesa), was a relatively elaborate fantasy, pumped up by extended dance sequences from Joffrey Ballet.
At Royce Hall on Friday night, Kronos Quartet’s performance of composer Jonathan Berger and librettist Harriet Scott Chessman’s My Lai, which centers on one of the darkest chapters of the Vietnam War, was a cathartic, emotionally raw open wound of an opera that received a contrastingly stark and minimalist staging.
In L.A. Opera’s new production of Orpheus & Eurydice, created in partnership with Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Hamburg Staatsoper and choreographed and directed by John Neumeier, the act of movement was often just as important as the music. In order to accommodate the large cast of dancers from Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet (who were in L.A. to relive Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo & Juliet in the same room on Friday and Sunday), the L.A. Opera Chorus and its indefatigable director, Grant Gershon, were wedged into the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion’s orchestra pit alongside the musicians from the L.A. Opera Orchestra and their ever-fervent conductor, James Conlon.
Neumeier’s stage set consisted of large, rotating cubes with mirrored panels that would turn and unfold to reveal the singers and dancers from unusual perspectives. Chris Maravich’s shadowy lighting imbued the proceedings with an ambiguous air of menace and shrouded mystery as Orpheus wandered through Hades in search of Eurydice. At times, there were some stirringly evocative poses as dancers hovered both in front of and behind the translucent mirrored panels. When dancers pushed the sides of the cubes around in circles, the reflected images of other ballet dancers twisted and sped up and looked even more ghostly in the maze of shadows and glass. When the rotating cubes finally stopped spinning, it returned the focus to the singers.
Apart from the chorus, whose consoling weave of voices added emotional power to the music, there were only three singers, including soprano Liv Redpath, who embodied Orpheus’ adviser Amour with a clear, radiant vibrancy. As Orpheus, Mironov wasn’t the most forceful dramatic presence, and his acting and chemistry with Oropesa were a bit wooden. However, golden notes poured out of the tenor’s mouth seamlessly with a lovely tone that communicated Orpheus’ romantic despair and ardor better than any facial expression could.
Her face covered in a sheer white bridal veil, Oropesa moved across the stage like a phantom presence, her silvery voice hinting at an almost timeless sense of melancholy. In her simple gestures, the soprano managed to look at ease among all the ballet dancers swirling around her.
The unison by some of the corps de ballet dancers was occasionally ragged, and elements of Neumeier’s choreography became repetitive by the second act. But the principal soloists were often impressive, and several of the inverted lifts were dreamily sensual.
When Orpheus was asked, “Who is that bold man who dares to set foot in this dismal place?” one couldn’t help thinking of Hugh Thompson, the U.S. Army helicopter pilot whose real-life experiences uncovering the horrors of the Vietnam War were the focus of Berger and Chessman’s My Lai. Like Orpheus, Thompson has to plunge into a private hell to preserve his sanity, but his quest isn’t a search for love.
Instead, Thompson, who was the first member of the U.S. military to arrive on the scene after other American soldiers raped and massacred several hundred unarmed Vietnamese civilians in 1968, represents the nation’s late-arriving conscience, as he recounts his experiences from a hospital room.
The cast of singers in My Lai, which was performed for just one night, was even smaller than in L.A. Opera’s Orpheus & Eurydice. Striding impatiently onstage as Thompson to the distant thrum of helicopters, tenor Rinde Eckert was the only vocalist in the 75-minute piece, and he had to carry the weight of the tragic story and stand in as the symbol of a shocked country all by himself. It was an impressive tour de force for Eckert, who was singing at full force for much of the opera.
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However, the unvarying intensity of Berger’s music for long stretches made Eckert’s parts sometimes feel like nonstop bellowing. Eckert’s vocals were more interesting and nuanced when he lowered the volume and hit delicate higher notes that better reflected Thompson’s horrified empathy in the face of the devastation unfolding before him. “I always wanted to fly,” Eckert sang vulnerably at the end, his voice trailing off and subsiding within the soft static of sound effects and the Kronos Quartet’s subtle interlocking of strings. Kronos Quartet adeptly navigated the tight corners of Berger’s music with an alert, careful touch.
My Lai’s most intriguing melodies were delivered by Vietnamese-American multi-instrumentalist Vân-Ánh Võ, who moved back and forth among a series of traditional Vietnamese instruments. When she manipulated the strings of her dàn bau, Võ evoked the eerie sounds of a theremin mixed with the tremolo effect of a guitar. When she wasn’t administering soft, momentous tones on a large golden gong or rattling a marimba-like rack of percussion, Võ kneaded the strings of her zither-like dàn tranh to trap idyllic melodies in a sitar-style web of sound.
Since most of My Lai was told from a U.S. helicopter pilot’s point of view, Võ’s intoxicating passages provided an intriguing hint of the Vietnamese culture that was often drowned out in the din of bombs and gunfire that shaped many Americans’ impressions of that Southeast Asian country.
Orpheus & Eurydice continues at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown; Thu., March 15, Wed., March 21, and Sat., March 24, 7:30 p.m.; Sun., March 18 & 25, 2 p.m.; $20-$300. (213) 972-0777, laopera.org.