Arts & Entertainment

LA Opera and Joffrey go waaaay back — 2,000 years — to bring new life to 'Orpheus and Eurydice'

Dancers from the Joffrey Ballet in LA Opera's 2018 production of
Dancers from the Joffrey Ballet in LA Opera's 2018 production of "Orpheus and Eurydice."

By returning opera to its most ancient manifestation, LA Opera has made a smash success of its new production of Gluck’s “Orpheus and Eurydice.”

When modern opera emerged around 1600, it tried to re-create ancient theater, combining in equal parts music, drama, and dance. But since we have practically no remains of Greek or Roman choreography, or their music, modern artists had to create their own dance, their own music, and eventually their own words. Music got first place, then words, then dance.

By the 1800's, these opera ballets  were mere entr'actes: the dancers came on stage as the singer-actors sat down to imaginary dinner, and as the patrons variously relieved themselves, enjoyed a quick late repast, or attended to their lovers. (Some of them even watched the dancers.)

But what would opera be like if, as over 2 millennia ago, dance was again an equal partner? If LAO’s “Orpheus and Eurydice” is anything to go on, the results could be astounding.

Dance and Opera get equal billing in the LA Opera's latest production

Of course, it would help if the dance company involved were the peerless Joffrey Ballet, which is what we have in LA Opera’s ancient tale of love, death, resurrection, and death again.

Maxim Mironov as Orpheus, with dancers from the Joffrey Ballet, in LA Opera's 2018 production of
Maxim Mironov as Orpheus, with dancers from the Joffrey Ballet, in LA Opera's 2018 production of "Orpheus and Eurydice."

Despite a sketchy overall concept and some awkward transitions between the singing and the acting, the overall effect is high dramatic accomplishment, the dancing furies and Elysian post-mortals of the Joffrey integral with the fiery passion of high-ranging tenor Maxim Mironov’s Orpheus, the embodied pathos of Soprano Lisette Oropesa’s stately Eurydice, and the spritely narrative energy of soprano Lynn Redpath as Amour (aka Cupid).

The bereaved couple are doubled in dance by Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili of the Joffrey, whose 42-member troupe provide all the acrobatic demons and graceful divinities of Gluck’s afterlife. John Neumeier’s strong choreography gives the dancers plenty to flaunt, deploying classic on-the-toes ballet in the “living” world but switching to Martha Graham-style modern dance in the “hereafter.”

Read Marc's review of a particularly "meaty" show at the Geffen Contemporary

The precision and fluid athleticism of the Joffrey dazzles throughout. Neumeier’s vaguely unisex costumes seemed completely appropriate. His rotating, human-powered sets also contributed.

But I wish his plot modernization worked as well: Instead of dying by snakebite, Eurydice is run over by a Mini-Cooper.

Maxim Mironov as Orpheus and Lisette Oropesa as Eurydice, with dancers from the Joffrey Ballet, in LA Opera's 2018 production of
Maxim Mironov as Orpheus and Lisette Oropesa as Eurydice, with dancers from the Joffrey Ballet, in LA Opera's 2018 production of "Orpheus and Eurydice."

And instead of being a musician who enchants his way into the underworld, as he is repeatedly referred to in the text, this Orpheus is a choreographer who takes a pack of his wife’s headshots to Hades. Oof. This updating conceit is so threadbare that it thankfully drifts away in the course of things, and the underlying classic tale of love, loss, grief and human frailty shines through by the end.

Neumeier has also overtasked himself by taking on lighting, choreographing, set and costume design and, in particular, the overall direction of the production. He simply had too much to do. Transformations from vocal to dance focus were sometimes awkward, as they definitely should not be if we are attempting truly to integrate dance and music. I kept thinking that a great Broadway musical producer like Hal Prince would have smoothed out such flaws early in rehearsal.

LAO has elected to perform the longer, later Paris version, with all the wonderful ballet and the greatest music of Gluck, a crucial composer who stood at the boundary between the baroque and the classical. For all the flaws, it was an exultant evening.

There are three more LA Opera performances of "Orpheus and Eurydice:" at 7:30pm on Wednesday, March 21 and Saturday, March 24; and a 2pm matinee on Sunday, March 25.