'Orpheus': A Touching Return From The Dead

Bronwen Forbay and Alex Tall in the Wolf Trap Opera Company production of Telemann's rarely performed
Bronwen Forbay and Alex Tall in the Wolf Trap Opera Company production of Telemann's rarely performed "Orpheus, or the Marvelous Constancy of Love." (By Carol Pratt)

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Monday, June 19, 2006

Georg Philipp Telemann, a contemporary of Bach's, is better known for quantity than for quality. It isn't surprising, therefore, that a lot of the composer's music never gets heard today or that his opera "Orpheus, or the Marvelous Constancy of Love," which opened Friday in a Wolf Trap Opera Company production at the Barns, is a U.S. premiere.

What is surprising is that this facile and arguably superficial composer could have come up with an opera endowed with dramatic and lyrical possibilities that Kim Pensinger Witman's WTO has fashioned into a stunningly touching and entertaining production.

The traditional Orpheus/Eurydice tragedy (Orpheus's quest to reclaim his beloved Eurydice from Pluto's netherworld of the dead fails because he can't resist glancing back at her) occupies only one of the three acts in this three-hour opera. The rest concerns love, passion and why and how Eurydice died. There are Queen Orasia, whose obsession with Orpheus grows ever more vengeful; Eurimides, Orpheus's friend and dabbler in love; and Ismene, Orasia's attendant, who watches sorrowfully her mistress's descent into decadence.

All the recitatives and some of the action arias of this opera are in German, but librettist Michel du Boullay must have felt that real passion and fury could be expressed more eloquently in Italian or, more rarely, in French, and he switched from one to another freely. Telemann's idiom of generalized European sophistication suited all equally, so the polyglot libretto seemed almost incidental.

This is a beautifully balanced production. The cast, singers drawn from the Wolf Trap Opera's pool of young professionals who are studying there for the summer, is musical, intelligent and wonderfully prepared. The orchestra, baroque-size and anchored by a fine harpsichord, cello and theorbo continuo, plays under the direction of Guido Rumstadt with stylish delicacy. Sets are simple but evocative, the lighting is outstanding, and the costumes mix the fanciful and the contemporary with intentional ambiguity.

On Friday, soprano Bronwen Forbay, a powerful but subtle Orasia, sang with remarkable control and used her voice with splendid dramatic effect.

Alex Tall was a sympathetic and lyrically convincing Orpheus, and Fiona Murphy, who may not have had a particularly interesting role as Eurydice, nevertheless handled it nicely. Jeremy Little's Eurimides and Maureen McKay's Ismene were well matched as foils for the two protagonists, and Evelyn Pollock, Matt Boehler and Ronnita Miller did fine jobs as some of the less sympathetic characters in the production.

The final two performances are on Friday and Sunday.

-- Joan Reinthaler

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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