By PATRICK CLEMENT JAMES
What is an Orphic moment? A song so sweet that even Hades must release the dead back to the living? Is it a descent—the Greek Katabasis to the underworld—to commune with disembodied shades on the wall? Or is it the forbidden glance, the supreme, aesthetic joy of looking?
On Thursday night, these were the compelling questions taken up by Orphic Moments, a performance curated by the intelligent countertenor, Anthony Roth Costanzo, at National Sawdust in Brooklyn.
Costanzo is an artist of the highest caliber—smart, brave, and versatile—so, it was a pleasure to see the singer indulge an even more profound dimension of creative expression as producer. His interest in the Orpheus myth speaks more broadly to the concerns of singers and performing artists alike: their inextricable subordination to music and theater’s ephemeral temporality, the rhetorical agency of artists, and the costly demands of aesthetic excellence.
These are important and indefatigable points of conversation, and Costanzo’s appreciation for the discourse surrounding the myth of Orpheus highlights his good judgment as a practitioner and innovator of the stage.
However, in this instance, my generous compliments for the singer’s intellect only matter if his voice matches his brain. Thankfully, Costanzo’s countertenor was wonderfully expressive—fervent in moments of extreme pain, sleek and cold at junctures of refusal and detachment.
As an actor, the singer has that quality which one rarely finds on the operatic stage: stillness. His interiority poured from some central core, rendering the singer vulnerable, spontaneous, and organically dynamic.
Orphic Moments’ structure is nicely circular, beginning with Matthew Aucoin’s The Orphic Moment and seguing into Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice (In lieu of a proper intermission, Chef Patrick Connolly provided a delicious array of snacks, passed out on a board by the ushers during Gluck’s overture)
While Aucoin’s piece places intense focus on the ascent from Hades, Gluck’s begins with Euridice’s death, and so Orfeo ed Euridice provides something of a backstory to Orphic Moments. Both pieces, conducted by Aucoin and featuring musicians from the Manhattan School of Music Chamber Sinfonia, offer permutations of the Orpheus myth. However, Gluck’s reading is a conventional exploration of love and loss, while Aucoin’s is far more radical and unsettling.
The Orphic Moment, with text by the composer, suggests one of the more bleak readings of Orpheus’ mismanaged ascent, one that merges pathological melancholia with aesthetic satisfaction. Aucoin construes Orpheus’s backward glance as a deliberate act, one that allows the singer’s abiding pain to give rise to his exquisite music: Orpheus chooses generative grief and its product, art, over erotic fulfillment.
Like its female counterpart, the myth of Philomela, there is a certain element of sadism in Orpheus’ plight—and yet, through Aucoin’s imaginative intervention, the narrative takes on masochistic dimensions as well.
This variation on the Orpheus model is a bravura turn (no pun intended), one that provokes the more unseemly notions of queer theory to rear their ugly heads. Obliquely alluding to the aesthetic amorality of Oscar Wilde, as well as the political vacuity of Andy Warhol, The Orphic Moment raises deeply disturbing questions regarding art’s function and consumption, its narcissistic auteurs, and its exploitative tendencies.
To compound matters, Aucoin strips Eurydice of her agency, substituting her human voice for that of the solo violin. Only the silent presence of a dancer (Bobbi Jene Smith) suggests any physicality for the character. And this choice centralizes our focus even more precisely on the Artist/Orpheus figure, whose self-centered creative ambitions override Eurydice’s desire to live.
Earlier this month, Aucoin’s premier of the song cycle Merrill Songs at Carnegie Hall demonstrated a disastrous misreading of James Merrill’s verse; but here, setting his own words, Aucoin’s music manages to add a robust, tactile texture to the proceedings.
Driving, tortured, and yet, at times, sweetly compassionate, his composition evinces the protagonist’s artistic and moral dilemma. And in his text, the composer reveals the influence of his reputed poetic teacher, Jorie Graham, displaying a clear, direct prosody.
The Gluck was a much more straightforward affair. Joining Costanzo in the endeavor were soprano Kiera Duffy as Euridice, soprano Jana McIntyre as Amore, Bobbi Jene Smith, once again, as Euridice’s silent, dancing double, and the Manhattan School of Music Chamber Choir as the chorus.
Both sopranos demonstrated fine, healthy voices—adept and flexible and rigorously exact. And the chorus provided a rich counterpoint to Costanzo’s pleading, singular singing, whose final lament, “Che farò senza Euridice?,” was especially moving.
Doug Fitch’s simple, clean direction of both pieces relied heavily on Costanzo’s theatricality, albeit successfully. To suggest the fall and rise of Orpheus’ trajectory, Fitch utilized projections designed by Tim McLoraine, a shadowy touch that effectively evoked the spectral subject matter. Moreover, the costumes by Irina Kruzhilina located the myth in neither the past nor the future, highlighting the story’s endless topicality.
However, these fruitful collaborations only added to an evening that rode squarely on the shoulders of Costanzo, who was more then qualified to carry the burden. His is a multimodal talent that suggests many possibilities, not just as a star of the operatic stage, but as a presence within adjacent positions as well.
I look forward to seeing more projects of this nature from Costanzo, who brings a physical, vocal dexterity to a perceptive and disciplined mind. Orphic Moments is a refreshing example of the breadth of a singer’s potential influence, how individuals within the field might conceive of new modes of presenting ancient ideas.
In an industry ever anxious to justify its own existence, one might find a worthy solution in similar enterprises, just as long as equally competent musicians undertake them.