Orphée aux Enfers
The words “irresistible concoction” might well have been coined to describe Offenbach’s giddy, witty Orphée aux Enfers. Certainly, Manhattan School of Music’s Senior Opera Theater production deserves that label. Directed by Dona D. Vaughn with an eye toward showing off these college seniors to their best advantage, the production was delightful from start to finish. Naturally, some voices were more mature than others, and some students were more accomplished as actors, but the performers seen at the opening on March 27 (there were two alternating casts) were so well suited to their roles that it was easy to overlook any insecurities, which will most likely fade with experience. As Vaughn made clear in her pre-show remarks, most of these young singers were performing a full operatic role with orchestra for the first time. They’d provided many of their own costume pieces, and Kate Ashton’s simple set helped put the focus exactly where it belonged — on the students and their accomplishments.
The decision to present the arias in the original French and the dialogue in English allowed the performers maximum comfort level in each medium and worked surprisingly well. As Jupiter, Tyler Schoen held the stage with an impressively firm, strong baritone, kingly presence and well-placed flashes of self-deprecation. As his consort, the elegant Claire Gellert played Juno’s jealousy straight, which, of course, made her very funny, especially when smacking Schoen with her evening bag with increasing ferocity as his infidelities were revealed. As the sparky, squabbling central couple, Monica Danilov was a wide-eyed, sweet-voiced Eurydice, while tenor Stephen Biegner offered a preening, egotistical Orpheus. He had also clearly put quality time into learning to mime playing the violin. Justin Gordon’s Pluto was notable for his beautifully accented French diction and wry delivery of the dialogue.
As Diana, soprano Tamara Rusqué had some of the most technically demanding music and was an especially strong presence, both vocally and dramatically. Megan Samarin’s Venus displayed a bright soprano and an alluring figure in a cutout turquoise gown, while Kendra Dodd presented a creamy mezzo and a refined musical touch as a gamine Cupid. Mezzo Noragh Devlin sang authoritatively and was amusingly put out while wielding her megaphone as Public Opinion. Erin McGlover established her presence nicely in her brief solo as Minerva, and Alexander Chen delivered a smooth tenor and a quirky character turn as drunken jailer John Styx.
As the attendants, Skylar Rose and Kate Curran deserve a special mention. It’s not easy to be silent observers, and they managed their task while being both present and unobtrusive. In general, it was the energy, commitment and sense of fun emanating from the entire company that gave the performance its buoyancy, and they all deserve credit for singing and dancing their way through the “Can-Can” with aplomb. The orchestra, set to the side in the Ades Performance Space and led with assurance and control by Jorge Parodi, provided energetic support without overwhelming the cast.
JOANNE SYDNEY LESSNER