The war between life and death is, like the symbiotic relationship between love and loss, central to Ricky Ian Gordon's 1995 Orpheus and Euridice, which is receiving its world premiere production at Lincoln Center's Rose Theater as part of the Great Performers & American Songbook series. But as brought to the stage by director-choreographer Doug Varone, it doesn't push all the buttons you might expect.
As it begins, it doesn't even seem inclined to push buttons at all: Against a soundtrack of silence, Varone's eight dancers enact the inception of life, slowly evolving into familiar beasts who pursue only instinctual desires, with no need for music of their own. Out of necessity evolves Orpheus, a musician whose playing brings law, order, and respectability to the animal kingdom; through his clarinet, Orpheus can inspire feelings, stimulate thought, and spark the understanding of the nature of joy.
Then springs forth the beautiful Euridice, who - after a brief courtship - becomes Orpheus's true love. Their time together, however, is limited - she eventually contracts a disease and dies too young. A distraught Orpheus storms the Underworld in an attempt to find her, and does, but human frailty and death being what they are, his attempt to restore her to the world of the living doesn't succeed.
A program note informs us that Gordon composed Orpheus and Euridice as a tribute to his lover, who died of AIDS in 1996. It makes sense, then, that even in the work's most joyous moments, there's an undercurrent of loss, of tempered happiness. Gordon's score is a potent operatic matchmaking of rapturous ode and keening dirge; the music is soaring and the lyrics unassumingly poetic, but everything is beset by ghosts and unstated expectations. Ideally, this would all be realized dramatically onstage, the development of humankind's most powerful emotions presented with knowing care.
Under Varone's watch, that never entirely happens. Everyone and everything in his world dances: Orpheus (Todd Palmer), Euridice (Elizabeth Futral), the white chairs of Allen Moyer's white-box set, even the piano at which accompanist Melvin Chen sits. This creates an often stunning swirl of continuous movement, ideal in the first act for showing the very genesis of love and passion, which unfold as to suggest that their forgotten, forbidden history is nonetheless a part of us all. But the second act, presented much more abstractly, doesn't plumb the depths of despair and grief with equal effectiveness. We need to feel Orpheus's anguish and inability to cope with the gradual loss of Euridice, so we can understand what leads him to the Underworld. We never do.
Similarly, Palmer's exquisite clarinet playing is fine for the first act; it impressively characterizes the reedy Orpheus, and his facile abilities beautifully serve the breathless nature of first - and last - love. But darker feelings elude Palmer in the second act, and neither his acting nor his dancing is accomplished enough to communicate enough about Orpheus to pick up the slack. (Palmer, who commissioned this piece from Gordon, would likely flourish in a straight concert reading.) Futral, though, is superb throughout, her dawn-and-dusk-drenched coloratura documenting moments and feelings as if with a vocal camera. She is utterly believable as the very soul of love, and gives Orpheus and Euridice, despite its problems, an unmistakable emotional pull.
It helps, of course, that Varone's sense of Gordon's music, at both its loudest and most quiet, is so complete; it's just as easy to get swept away in what you don't see and hear as what you do. Varone and Gordon have created a wondrous universe, in which love and life are glorious but not as blissfully eternal as they may at times seem. In other words, they have created our world; their interpretation may be imperfect, but its flaws don't diminish its inherent power.
Lincoln Center's American Songbook 2005-2006 Season