Is half a great opera better than none?
That's the question currently being asked by Gotham Chamber Opera with the first New York performances of Marc-Antoine Charpentier's unfinished La descente de Orphée aux Enfers, an opera which the composer left as a two-act torso in 1687. On New Year's Day, the company unveiled its production of the opera, allowing New York opera lovers to start the year by journeying three centuries back into the past. The opera production is part of Trinity Church's third annual Twelfth Night Festival.
Working from Ovid's version of the Orpheus myth, Charpentier set the story to rich, evocative music. Although there is only a small ensemble, the composer's creative arragements that trick the ear into thinking more instruments are present. Gotham music director Neil Goren led a taut, energetic octet, playing historically informed instruments. The choice of St. Paul's Chapel, an historically important small church located a block from the World Trade Center was inspired--the church's own 250-year history seeming to welcome the return of music that was popular a century before its cornerstone was laid.
With the last act (or acts?) absent (the music is lost or possibly uncomposed) there are limits to the dramatic effectiveness of this familiar story. Director Andrew Eggart overcame some of these through creative use of dance, with choreography by Doug Elkins. The music is still Charpentier: beautiful, imaginative music with brilliant orchestral effect. The composer is equally at ease portraying the pastoral wedding of Orphée and Eurydice, her subsequent death from a snake bite, and the heart-rending funeral march that ended the first act.
Tenor Daniel Curran anchored the performance as Orphée, singing the role with a voice that had beauty and just a hint of bite. He was onstage for almost all of the action. As Eurydice, Jamilyn Manning-White was less memorable, but the pre-wedding celebrations were brushed with a sweet innocence. The ill-fated couple was flanked by the wedding party, a mix of regular Gotham artists and fresh, young artists. In the second act, John Brancy, Cullen Gandy and Gerard Michael D'Emilio were memorable as a trio of tormented sinners. Bass-baritone Jeffry Beruan was an imposing and authoritative Pluto, and Mary Feminear a compassionate Proserpina.
With past productions staged in unlikely places (Rose Planetarium, burlesque club The Box, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden) Gotham Chamber Opera has a gift for reimagining all kinds of New York urban spaces as settings for their shows. In this case, the chancel and organ loft of St. Paul's, its white wooden spiral staircase and a simple purpose-built stage served as a multi-level set. The small period orchestra was tucked neatly under the balcony, using the "live" acoustic to imaginative effect. The white sets became simple projection surfaces too depict the hellish realm of Pluto (the imaginative landscape is by S. Katy Tucker) but the failure of one projector before the show undermined this supernatural effect.