Vita Brevis, Ars Long Beach Est
[Long Beach Opera, 2011 Season]
Bialystock and Bloomsday
(Nighttown is the Right Town)

Silent Sorrow in Empty Boats
[Orpheus and Euridice, Long Beach Opera]

Not every ship that sinks is the Titanic, requiring that its tale be told on the scale favored by James Cameron.  When loss capsizes the little vessel of the heart, something more intimate is called for.  Ricky Ian Gordon's song cycle, Orpheus and Euridice, for soprano, clarinet, and piano or chamber orchestra, keeps its focus tight and close, eschewing broad mythic gestures and obvious dramatic incident in favor of calm and reflective clarity.  

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With music and text both by Gordon, Orpheus and Euridice was written partly in response to a commission from clarinetist Todd Palmer and partly as a response to the illness and death of Gordon's own companion.  It premiered in 2001 in New York in a version for clarinet and soprano and has gone through a number of revisions and expansions since, adding first a piano, then a string quartet, and finally an eleven piece chamber ensemble.  

Long Beach Opera first staged Orpheus and Euridice in 2008 with Palmer, his clarinet, and soprano Elizabeth Futral in the novel and unexpected environs of the Belmont Plaza Olympic Pool

  • The Belmont pool opened in August, 1968, with the U.S. Olympic swimming trials ahead of the Mexico City games, in which Mark Spitz did not fulfill his boast of bringing home six golds.  The Belmont bleachers can hold some 2500 spectators at full capacity and the facility was considered the premier indoor swim stadium of its day. Its famously large gutters simply swallow up waves, keeping the surface remarkably calm.   

I did not have the opportunity to see the 2008 performances, but I was able to attend Friday evening when the company launched a three-performance run of a revised version of its production.  (The remaining performances are tonight [which is at or near selling out] and Sunday, June 13, both at 9:00 p.m.)

Gordon's version of the Orpheus myth follows the traditional contours: the musician/poet Orpheus, here preferring a reed instrument to his traditional lyre, falls in love and binds up his life with that of Euridice; she sickens and dies; Orpheus descends to the land of the dead and, by dint of musical wizardry, obtains Euridice's return, with the condition that he must not look back to see if she is actually with him until they have both reemerged upon the earth.  Orpheus fails the test, of course, and Euridice is lost to him forever.  He mourns and mourns and in the end is literally torn to pieces by his grief in this world, but his musical spirit lives on, floating out of and in to the dark.  

There is no dialog between the characters as such.  The story moves through a series of brief songs and musical interludes.  Orpheus is "portrayed" less by the clarinetist than by the clarinet itself.  Euridice is referred to, but never speaks herself: she appears, really, only through the eyes, heart and music of Orpheus.  The soprano part is more narrator than character, though Palmer and Futral interact with one another throughout the performance.  They travel, sit, stand, sing, play, together and separately, in a small boat and around the perimeter of the pool. Silent actor/dancers also double for Orpheus and Euridice, in and out of the water, as well as helping to move the boat about.  The gods do not appear at all, except once as a silent eye on multiple video screens on the far side of the pool.

Apart from the degree of difficulty involved in playing a clarinet while standing up in a small boat -- don't try this at home, kids -- the core challenge of the Belmont Pool as a performance space is acoustic: everything echoes off the water and surrounding hard surfaces and sound of pumps and filters is ever-present.  Both clarinet and singer were judiciously amplified in Long Beach, generally to good effect.  I overheard some complaints about the balances between soloists and orchestra, but it was all surprisingly clear from where I was seated.

Orpheus and Euridice is undeniably a "little" work that would be smothered entirely by the ministrations of a "grand opera" company.  It needs and rewards the smaller scale provided, by inclination and necessity, by a small and enterprising company such as Long Beach Opera.  Its payoffs are not explosive or spectacular.  They are, rather, modest but lingering, as in a distant but important dream.

Todd Palmer, intimately familiar with it at this point, makes the most of the virtuoso demands presented by the supple and wide-ranging clarinet part.  Elizabeth Futral's performance is emotionally pointed and lovely, dramatic but without unnecessary frill.  She also gets to sport an awfully nice yellow dress.

And thus ends Long Beach Opera Season 31, on a note of quiet satisfaction, to be savored discretely and lingered over for a time, in anticipation of the new and different pleasures that Season 32 will surely bring.

LBOrpheus

  • Incidental suggestion: perhaps next time Long Beach Opera retools this production, they can take it on the road and perform al fresco in the Neptune Pool at Hearst Castle.

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Photos: 

(Top) Todd Palmer and Elizabeth Futral from the 2008 production.  Photo by Keith Ian Polakoff, used with the kind permission of Long Beach Opera.

(Bottom) Belmont Pool prior to 2010 performance.  Photo by the blogger.

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