BWW Review: Memorable MOMENTS from Aucoin, Gluck and Costanzo at National Sawdust

BWW Review: Memorable MOMENTS from Aucoin, Gluck and Costanzo at National Sawdust
Conductor/composer Matthew Aucoin and
countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo (on platform)
at National Sawdust. Photo: Jill Steinberg

In THE ORPHIC MOMENT, a "dramatic cantata," composer-librettist-conductor-poet (phew!) Matthew Aucoin takes an 18th century masterwork, Gluck's ORFEO ED EURYDICE--perhaps the greatest of the numerous operas based on the Orpheus legend--and knocks it on its ear.

At a time when many composers-librettists of new opera are trying to reach audiences by using culturably relatable devices--often adapting the source materials of films or politically relevant works--Aucoin has had the audacity to go decidedly in the opposite direction. He not only has gone back to the 18th century by commenting on ORFEO (a cornerstone of German opera, with an Italian libretto by Ranieri de' Calzabigi), but does it using his own modernist vocabulary to take on one of the opera's pivotal moments and asks, "What if?" Then he sets it against a shortened version of Gluck's original and fits them together wonderfully, under the overall title, ORPHIC MOMENTS.

According to Aucoin's own program notes, the story goes something like this: The great singer Orpheus is about to marry the beautiful Eurydice when the bride is fatally bitten by a snake. He follows her to the Underworld to try to get her back, pleading in song to Hades and his crew, who melt at the sound of his music. They grant Eurydice a second chance and allow her to leave, with the stipulation that Orpheus cannot look at her until they reach ground level. He does and she disappears forever.

The event, which took place at National Sawdust, an intimate venue (about 150 seats) in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, that co-produced the event with the Manhattan School of Music, unfolded in three parts, lasting just under two hours. The action (mostly) took place on a platform built over the orchestra, and it was inspiring to be in such close proximity to the performers. It began with Aucoin's new composition, had an interlude of Gluck's dance music ("the scary part's over," announced the composer/conductor), while the audience partook in the "wedding dinner" of Orpheus/Orfeo and Eurydice (with tidbits by Chef Patrick Connolly from the venue's restaurant-to-be), then continued with a shortened version of the Gluck original.

THE ORPHIC MOMENT is Aucoin's riff on the Orpheus legend, beginning at the split-second before the singer turns to look his bride, "musing on what would happen if he lost Eurydice again." Aucoin has decided that Orpheus is of two minds: the heartbreak of losing her vs. the creative impact her loss may have on him.

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Richard Sasanow Richard Sasanow is a long-time writer on art, music, food, travel and international business for publications including The New York Times, The Guardian (UK), Town & Country and Travel & Leisure, among many others. He also interviewed some of the great singers of the 20th century for the programs at the San Francisco Opera and San Diego Opera and worked on US tours of the Orchestre National de France and Vienna State Opera, conducted by Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta and Leonard Bernstein.