Les Malheurs d’Orphée

Jan 18, 2002

The New York Times

Allan Kozinn

The Henry Street Chamber Opera created an immediate buzz when it announced itself with Mozart's youthful ''Sogno di Scipione'' last April. The work, if not top-drawer Mozart, was unusual enough to catch the attention of operatic novelty seekers, and it was professionally staged, performed by good young singers and supported by a lively chamber orchestra led by Neal Goren, the company's founder.

The troupe's home, the Harry de Jur Playhouse at the Henry Street Settlement, was a draw as well: a beautifully refurbished, 350-seat theater with good sight lines and fine acoustics, it lets opera be an intimate experience rather than an impersonally distant spectacle.

In the company's second production -- a double bill of Milhaud's ''Malheurs d'Orphée'' and Purcell's ''Dido and Aeneas'' that opened on Monday evening -- it maintains the promise of freshness and excitement that was implied in its auspicious debut.

The two works do not immediately suggest themselves as partners. The Milhaud, written in 1924 and rarely played, is a modern transformation of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, set in a vigorous, faintly jazz-tinged language. Its obvious companion is Stravinsky's ''Histoire du Soldat'' or possibly ''Renard.'' The Purcell, composed around 1689 and justly famous, is couched in the French style that 17th-century English composers favored. Its logical companion, for reasons of both internal textual reference and musical style, is Charpentier's ''Actéon.''

Mr. Goren maintained the musical distance between the works: the Henry Street Chamber Opera Orchestra, playing modern instruments, accompanied the Milhaud, and the Concert Royal Baroque Orchestra, a superb period instrument ensemble, supported the Purcell.

Still, the suggestion in the program notes by Laurence Dale, the stage director, that both works are about people who love too much (and die as a result) seemed as good a connection as any, and as it turned out, the juxtaposition was not particularly jarring.

Mr. Dale also made some connections directorially. In the Milhaud, Orpheus is a peasant who has healing powers; Eurydice is a Gypsy. Both the villagers and Eurydice's family raise xenophobic objections to the union, and when Eurydice dies of a disease that Orpheus cannot heal, her sisters return to kill him.

Mr. Dale and his costume designer, Fabio Toblini, made the elder sister (Tiffany Regal) into a flamboyantly malevolent black-clad matron. Ms. Regal returns in the same costume in the Purcell to sing the Sorceress who puts Dido and Aeneas asunder and causes Dido's death.

The sets by Dipu Gupta make economic use of scrims -- one spattered with drops of paint in the Milhaud, gracefully etched translucent ones in the Purcell -- and rely heavily on Allen Hahn's thoughtful lighting. Mr. Toblini's rag-tag modernist costumes hold the eye as well.

But it was the cast that really brought these works to life. David Adam Moore's solid baritone enlivened Orphée and made for an unusually decisive, powerful Aeneas. Patricia Johnson, a lyric soprano, sang Eurydice's music gracefully and with the low-key ardor that the score demands. She was also an energetic Belinda in the Purcell.

The knockout performance of the evening, though, was Camellia Johnson's Dido. Except for a moment in the hunt scene, she is set on a pedestal that makes her tower over both Aeneas and her subjects. But the suppleness she brought to her arias -- particularly her closing lament -- had a melting quality that magnified the character in a far more touching way.

The singers in the smaller roles -- Talise Trevigne as the Second Woman, Julie Baron and Sarah Blaze as the witches and William Ferguson as the sailor -- also made important contributions to the Purcell, and the company's nicely polished chorus was crucial in both works.

Mr. Goren drew beautifully shaped performances from the two orchestras as well, and if some of his tempos in the Purcell seemed idiosyncratic at first, he was generally able to make them seem persuasive in the context of the production.

The bill runs through Tuesday.