Reviewed by Will Stackman
The first opera produced during the Renaissance was a musicalization of Sophocles' "Oedipus Rex." It's predictable that composer/librettist/performer Rinde Eckert might develop a post-modern opera-like invention based on Greek myth. Also his earlier collaboration with director Robert Woodruff and the ART, "Highway Ulysses," took off from Homer's collection of stories. As in that first effort, he's rewritten this myth to make his own. The hero of "Orpheus X", in which he sings the title role, is a pop star singer/songwriter. One rainy night, the cab in which he was hurrying to a party struck and killed a poetess who died in Orpheus' arms. Since then he hasn't performed but stays holed up in his loft obsessing over her meager possessions which he took away from the hospital. Euridyce, sung by soprano Suzan Hanson, is reconceived not as Orpheus' beloved wife, but as an obscure word-obsessed Muse, central to the action. In fact, as the audience enters the ART's new black box space at Zero Arrow, she's seen nude under the raised seating scrawling on the floor with chalk. Hanson, who was last heard here in the ART premiere of Philip Glass' "Sound of a Voice", is seen nude throughout the show in video loops, pacing under the seating, lying supine or dropping her glasses. Before the show, her scribbling is seen on a screen over the set and heard over the loud speaker.
In fact, the multimedia aspects of this production sometimes threaten to overwhelm its musical core. The video elements, created by Brookline artist, Denise Marika, are shown first on the screen, but then throughout the action on two faux steel beams, one vertical, one horizontal, which are the major elements of the set. Orpheus appears briefly in one final sequence tussling with his Euridyce which seems obligatory at best. Another signature part of David Zinn's scenic collage are plexiglas panels, which sometimes reflect the action and also provide surfaces up in which the poetess can scribble, which she does obsessively. The same meme was used to complicate Ulysses "son" in Eckert's prior effort. Fortunately, Hanson also sings impressively.
The third member of the cast is John Kelly, last seen here as Cupid in the ART's "Dido, Queen of Carthage." He plays Orpheus' business manager in the real world, and, in the same greatcoat, Persephone, Queen of the Dead. Eckert has elided the two myths. Kelly's first role is largely there for exposition; his underworld counterpart is much more interesting, if more a performance than a character. The differing skills of the three performers, Eckert's powerful pop voice, Hanson's trained soprano, and Kelly's tenor which soars into falsetto when needed suggest the mythic basis for their roles. There are instances when the show approaches the heights to which it aspires . Most of the time, however, the audience gets a jumble of moderne imagery to puzzle over.
This is the kind of show which really should be seen twice in order to decide whether or not its creators have reached any sort of plausible resolution. At times the piece feels if its hulking protagonist wants to get inside the other two roles. Indeed the author has projected his feelings about creation into all three, without clarifying much. On one level, everything, including the desire to resurrect the dead, is simply in Orpheus' head, including the repetitive images which invade the set. Musically, while interesting, Eckert's fusion of styles doesn't quite gel, so that bits of Glass here and Weill there, underlaid by alternative rock, seem unmotivated. The final result of all this effort, including Robert Woodruff's overly inventive staging, is a collage of theatrical ideas, which only occasionally approach drama.
At the end of the show, after Orpheus' touching invocation of spring meant to effect both Euridyce and Persephone, the first two have a section of simple dialogue. The poetess has decided to bathe in Lethe, the river of forgetfulness. Persephone has won. Are we to assume Orpheus won't sing again? Kelly does, and then wraps Euridyce in a packing blanket so she can remove the vaguely Grecian wrapper she's worn through the show discretely. Her brief nudity can be seen reflected in the upstage plexiglas from a few seats. And the show's over. There have been memorable moments, but on the whole, the action, what little there is forgettable. The upstage clutter of Zinn's set, his utiliterian costumes, Christopher Akerlind's theatrical lighting and David Remedios's sound support are up to the company's usual standards, and the band is first rate. But the result is very indulgent, and the content overly self-referential. There's little new to take home from this retelling of the legends invoked.