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Successfully fusing opera and ballet in Lyric’s ‘Orphee et Eurydice’

Lauren Snouffer (from left) as Amour, Andriana Chuchman as Eurydice and Dmitry Korchak as Orphee in the John Neumeier production of Gluck's "Orphee et Eurydice" at Lyric Opera of Chicago. (Todd Rosenberg Photography)

Take an ancient Greek myth as filtered through an 18th century opera, and transform it into a contemporary meditation on love, art, grief, remorse and mortality by way of an elaborate intertwining of opera and ballet. By any reckoning that is quite a monumental act of layering. And it is only the barest outline of what John Neumeier, the “triple threat” director, choreographer and designer, has done in his new ultra-modern production of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s “Orphee et Eurydice” — a production that also marks the first collaboration between Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Joffrey Ballet.

Highly recommended
When: Through Oct. 15
Where: Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker
Tickets: $69 – $319
Info: (312) 827-5600;
Run time: 2 hours and
30 minutes with one intermission

Joffrey Ballet dancers Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili are the “doubles” of the title characters in the Lyric Opera of Chicago production of “Orphee et Eurydice.” (Todd Rosenberg Photography)

Using the revised 1774 “Paris version” of the Gluck classic, which added a major dance component and music to the work, and also replaced a castrato voice with a high tenor — now a tenor — in the role of Orphee, the Milwaukee native who has served as director and chief choreographer of Germany’s Hamburg Ballet since 1973 has given the story a freshly modern frame. The legendary figure of Greek myth endowed with sublime musical skills is now a choreographer whose wife, Eurydice, is the temperamental star of his company, and who, after storming out of a rehearsal after a marital spat, is killed in a car crash.

Devastated by his loss — and by the despair felt when what are unknowingly the “last words” exchanged with a loved one happen to be angry ones — he is inconsolable. So his assistant, Amour, suggests he recall the journey into Hades (the underworld) taken by the mythical Orphee, who begged the Furies to allow him into the glorious Elysium, where he could be reunited with his wife.

Neumeier’s scenario is not always easy to decipher. Is Orphee’s imaginary journey, enacted through extensive ballet sequences, meant to suggest he is creating a ballet based on his recent experience, or is he simply experiencing an alternately nightmarish and restorative dream? Interpret it as you will. And simply revel in the glorious trio of voices that drives the work: Dmitry Korchak, who often stands alone on stage as Orphee, and whose thrillingly warm yet virtuosic tenor fills the theater with a golden sound; soprano Andriana Chuchman as Eurydice, who not only sings beautifully but moves with exceptional grace, and Lauren Snouffer as Amour, whose superbly natural acting and exquisitely calming soprano lend great charm to this pants role.

These three are backed by 60 members of the Lyric Opera Chorus who are positioned in the orchestra pit, along with the sublime orchestra led by Harry Bicket. And most crucially, they share the stage throughout with the Joffrey Ballet, with Victoria Jaiani and her real-life husband and ideal partner, Temur Suluashvili, portraying the more ghostly “doubles” of the title characters in dancing both lyrical and acrobatic. Neumeier’s otherworldly movement also includes a vision of Cerberus, the monstrous three-headed dog who guards the gates of Hades (danced by Edson Barbosa, Dylan Gutierrez and Alberto Velazquez), with 10 dancers evoking the angry Furies, seven couples as the Blessed Spirits of Elysium (dancing in whisper-soft bare feet rather than pointe shoes), and a quartet of Shadows.

Moving along with the dancers, and continually shifting the perspective of this journey, are the sets, costumes and lighting, all designed by Neumeier and part of his meticulously unified vision for this hugely ambitious production. Glass-like panels suggest the mirrors in a ballet studio as well as the passage into another world. A small, isolated cutaway of a bedroom suggests Orphee’s loneliness. A park bench and tree are the site of conversations between Orphee and Amour. Painted flats suggest a theatrical version of the mountains of ancient Greece.

Not everything is ideal. The crucial scene in which Orphee is reunited with Eurydice, but is warned he cannot look at her until they have both made their way out of the underworld, contains a confusing degree of physical contact. And at times there is just too much to absorb as the singers, dancers and scenery all move, and your eyes focus upward to catch the supertitles for Pierre-Louis Moline’s French libretto. A greater sense of Orpheus’ use of art to come to terms with his grief also needs reinforcing in the opera’s final moments. But these are small quarrels with a production at once lean, complex and awash in beauty and the mystery of love.

Dmitry Korchak as Orphee, with dancers of the Joffrey Ballet in the Lyric Opera production of “Orphee et Eurydice.” (Todd Rosenberg Photography)