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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.

It's a challenging work--albeit a brief one, at 15 minutes or so--but it's worth delving into, for Aucoin has much to say, melding text and music in a hypnotic way. He has been called "the future of opera," but he's way too unusual to appeal to the masses. This is the first time I've heard his work and he's certainly an original; Sure, there are shifting harmonies and tempi that one notices, but there's no feeling of pulling bits of this-composer, that-composer and see how they fit.

He was abetted here by Fitch's inventive production, with video by Pix Talarico, projections by Tim McLoraine, lighting by Bruce Steinberg and costumes, both witty and luxurious, by Irina Kruzhilina. The Chamber Sinfonia, Chamber Choir, dancers and soloists from the Manhattan School of Music met the challenges of the evening, musical and otherwise. Cori Ellison was dramaturg (the bridge between the opera and its audiences) and provided the subtitles.

The headliner here was countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, just back from a heralded performance in London as Philip Glass's AKHNATEN, and a curator/producer of the event. He gave a riveting performance as Orpheus/Orfeo in both parts of the piece. Costanzo leapt fearlessly and powerfully into Aucoin's mostly atonal score with haunting precision, then shifting gears, elegantly and thoughtfully, for the classical Gluck, which was followed by a final, brief comment from Aucoin that circled back to his "what-if" moment.

The evening began--this "snapshot into the cerebrum of Orfeo," as the director told the audience--with a variety of Eurydices playing opposite Costanzo: a solo violin, wonderfully played by Keir GoGwilt, and a dancer, smartly performed by Bobbi Jene Smith. In the Gluck, Smith was a holdover, joined by the excellent, silvery soprano of Kiera Duffy. Soprano Jana McIntyre stood out as Amore, a cherub dressed with spangly wings and holding court from the balcony, issuing the challenge to Orfeo "not to look back." Lindsay Harwell and Zack Winocur, the evening's choreographer, danced the two Shades.

Aucoin is clearly a man on the move, from former assistant conductor at the Met to being the first artist-in-residence at the Los Angeles Opera next fall. I hope he keeps time for us mere mortals.

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From This Author - Richard Sasanow

Richard Sasanow has been's Opera Editor for many years, with interests covering contemporary works, standard repertoire and true rarities from every era. He is an intervi... (read more about this author)

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