The operas of Christoph Willibald Gluck have rarely been performed by the San Francisco Opera. Gluck’s most famous opera, “Orpheus and Eurydice”, received only a couple of stage performances in a 1959 production. For the company’s centennial season, San Francisco Opera presents it in its original 1762 Italian version, “Orfeo ed Euridice”, which premiered in Vienna.
Gluck’s storyline follows the myth of Orpheus (Orfeo), the demigod musician. Orfeo so grieves the death of his wife EurIdice, that he ventures into the underworld to find her. Overcoming various challenges, he returns with her to the land of the living.
Gluck’s opera, with only two solo vocalists besides Orfeo, mixes arias, choruses and dances. Often, as in this 2022 production, the opera’s focus on overcoming death and adversity can be approached as a tabula rasa into which an opera director’s ideas can be incorporated.
Matthew Ozawa’s Production and Stage Direction
The creator of the new production, Illinois director Matthew Ozawa, found analogies between the traumatizing impact of Euridice’s death on Orfeo, and the effects of the recent Covid-19 pandemic. Ozawa and his four-person team that created the sets, projections, costumes, lighting and choreography for the production, referenced the impact of the pandemic on each of their lives, including the loss of loved ones. Euridice’s re-emergence from the underworld of death suggested to them the contemporary world’s re-emergence from the darkness of the recent past.
[Below: Production designer and director Matthew Ozawa; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Several ideas underlie the Ozawa production. First, Orfeo travels through the underworld are metaphorically analogous to the “seven stages of grief”. Second, advances in neurobiology make it possible to identify these stages of grief in neural patterns in the brain, and those patterns are incorporated into the set design..
Jacub Józef Orlinski‘s Orfeo.
Ozawa’s production features Polish countertenor Jacub Jósef Orlinski, in a physically and psychologically complex presentation of the work. Orlinski displayed a beautiful countertenor, exhibiting both power and expressiveness. He performed Gluck’s most famous aria, Che farò senza Euridice, with such elegance that it was the vocal highlight of the performance.
[Below Jacub Józef Orlinski; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
I suspect that for most audience members, their most vivid impression of Orlinski is his aggressive acrobatics, that include both a handstand and in-air somersault. Orlinski’s skills at break-dancing and other forms of physical expression are at the central core of his artistic reputation. A couple of examples of his prowess, incorporated into an opera and a production in which dancing is central, were not unexpected.
[Below:, a few seconds before the opening notes of the opera’s overture, Orfeo (Jacub Józef Orlinski) leaps into the air; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
In furtherance of Director Ozawa’s ideas, Orfeo (as does Euridice) has three dancers associated with him. One of whom, his double, dressed in a costume identical to Orfeo’s, shares Orfeo’s memories of happier times with Euridice.
[Below: a dancer (left) acts as a double of Orfeo (Jacub Jósef Orlinski, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Meigui Zhang’s Euridice
Chinese soprano Meigui Zhang, who had performed the principal role of Bai Yu in the 2022 revival of Sheng’s and Hwang’s “Dream of the Red Chamber” [Review: A Pleasing Revival of “Dream of the Red Chamber” at San Francisco Opera, June 14, 2022] was a vocally impressive Euridice. Her plaintive aria Che fiero momento, in which she wonders if Orfeo’s failure to look at her meant he no longer loved her, was exquisitely sung.
[Below: Euridice (Meigui Zhang, left) is pleased to see her husband Orfeo (Jacub Jósef Orlinski, right) but is confused about his distant behavior; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Among the production’s highlights are the interactions of the two lovers, performed by Orlinski and Zhang, with their dancers – California dancer Alysia Chang, Indiana dancer Brett Conway, Virginia dancer Marian Faustino, Oregon dancer Livanna Maislen, New York dancer Christopher Nachtrab and Pennsylvania dancer Mazwell Simoes.
[Below: Orfeo (Jacub Jósef Orlinski, in red costume, third from left) and Euridice (Meigui Zhang, in blue costume, front, left center; interact with Orfeo’s dancers (Brett Conway, Christopher Nachtrab and Maxwell Simoes) and Euridice’s (Alysia Chang, Marian Faustino and Livanna Maislen); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Nicole Heaston’s Amor
Texas soprano Nicole Heaston took on the relatively small role of the goddess Amor, who sets the ground rules for Orfeo’s retrieval of Euridice. She appeared on a swing high upon the stage in a vividly floral costume, and provides Orfeo with the information he needs for his quest, including forbidding him to look at Euridice or explain to her why he doesn’t, until they return to earth.
[Below: Nicole Heaston as Amor; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph,courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
This production chooses the “happy ending” from Gluck’s alternative storylines. Despite Amor’s ominous warning, Orfeo on the return journey inadvertently looks back at Euridice.
Amor, in a deus ex machina moment, forgives him, allowing the two lovers to be reunited on earth.
[Below: Despite violatiing the conditions that govern his efforts to secure his spouse’s return to life, Orfeo (Jacub Josef Orlinski, center, in spotlight) is granted what he seeks anyway; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
I had admired Heaston’s work in San Francisco in much larger roles – the Countess Almaviva [Review: Strong Cast, Arresting New Production for “Marriage of Figaro” – San Francisco Opera, October 13, 2019] and Despina [Review: “Cosi fan Tutte” – Nicely Sung, Imaginatively Staged – San Francisco Opera, November 21, 2021] and, in Houston, as Adina [Review: Engaging “Elixir of Love” at Houston Grand Opera, October 29, 2016] and Mimi [Review: Back Home for “Bohème” – Houston Grand Opera, November 10, 2018].
The role of Amor gives only a glimpse into Heaston’s vocal talents. Her praiseworthy appearance is luxury casting..
Maestro Peter Whelan and the San Francisco Opera
In his San Francisco Opera debut, Irish Maestro Peter Whelan, a baroque opera specialist, presided over a taut and authoritative performance by the world class San Francisco Opera Orchestra.
[Below: Maestro Peter Whelan; edited image, based on a Marco Borggreve photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Chorus Director John Keene and the San Francisco Opera Chorus
The San Francisco Opera Chorus, under the leadership of Pennsylvania Chorus Director John Keene, took on the roles of the underworld’s inhabitants, including the Furies, who attempt to block Orfeo’s entrance to the underworld
[Below: the Furies (San Francisco Opera Chorus) seek to prevent Orfeo’s entrance into Hades; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Alexander V. Nichols Set and Projection Designs, Jessica Jahn’s Costumes and Yuki Nakase Link’s Lighting Design
California designer Alexander V. Nichols created the set designs, prominently featuring stage floor projections that represent the neural brain patterns of the various stages of grief.
[Below: Orfeo’s dancers (Brett Conway, Christopher Nachtrab and Maxwell Simoes) appear on Alexander V. Nichols’ stage floor, covered with projections of neural brain patters of grieving persons; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
New York designer Jessica Jahn’s costumes included the primary colors of Orfeo’s and Euridice’s costumes with various shades for each of the lover’s trio of dancers. All of the costumes were visually enhanced and integrated by the New York designer Yuki Naiase Link’s lighting.
Rena Butler’s Choreography
Dancing is a major feature of any production of Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice”. The special sisgnificance of the dancing in Ozawa’s conceptualization, as well as the extraordinary dancing talent of the lead operatic performer, Orlinski, provided many opportunities for Illinois choreographer Rena Butler to produce memorable visual images, which significantly enhanced the performance
[Below: Orfeo (Jacob Jósef Orlinski) performs a handstand; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Final Thoughts and Recommendation
It has been a decade since I last reviewed performances of Gluck’s opera (these in the French version for tenor voice) in Seattle [Review: William Burden Triumphs in Gluck’s “Orphée et Eurydice” – Seattle Opera, February 29, 2012] and Santa Barbara [Review: “Orphée” at the Lobero – José Maria Condemi, Opera Santa Barbara, Mount Gluck’s Masterpiece in Intimate Venue – April 29, 2012].
The original Italian version, was written for a castrato male. After the disappearance of that vocal type, the Italian version was performed by female mezzo-sopranos. Only recently, with the emergence of world class male operatic counter-tenors, have new options opened for casting the role of Orfeo.
Jacub Jósef Orlinski proved to be an extraordinary artist, who, in addition to excellent vocal performance, made an arresting impression as a dancing acrobat. Using the opera’s mythic plot as the structure for Ozawa’s contemporary-themed production proved to be enjoyable.
l recommend the cast and production to both the veteran opera-goer and the person new to opera.
For my review of a previous production by Matthew Ozawa and his production team, see: Review: Beethoven’s “Fidelio”, An Excellent Cast for Matthew Ozawa’s Powerful Production – San Francisco Opera, October 17, 2021.