For quite a while now, composer Ricky Ian Gordon has been feeding into the evolving enthusiasm for small-scale musical drama with a long list of short works that incorporate song, dance and instruments and that require minimal sets. The Vermont Opera Project brought one of these, his “Orpheus and Euridice,” a dramatized cycle of 13 songs, to the National Gallery of Art over the weekend.
The hour-long work, which premiered in 2005, is scored for a singer (Euridice, sole purveyor of the text, who serves as the narrator), a clarinet (Orpheus, who speaks eloquently but always through his horn), a quartet of dancers and a sextet of accompanying instruments — piano and string quintet. The action, a mix of the ceremonial and the coltish, wove its way in and around the audience and the greenery in the West Garden Court and was held together masterfully by conductor Robert Wood, a founder of the D.C. chamber opera company UrbanArias.
Soprano Suzanne Kantorski took on the role of Euridice with grace and a generously smooth vocal production that had the depth you might expect from a mezzo. In the company of the four young, lithe dancers with young, lithe-dancer bodies who tended her and reflected the arc of the story, she held up the physical end of her assignment credibly. Clarinetist Wesley Christensen had a very different sort of challenge. Physically, he displayed no emotion at all, even as his backward glance condemned Euridice to an eternity in Hades. Instead, walking about almost trance-like with a robin’s-egg-blue Panama hat on his head, he expressed himself in a flow of music that seemed fully capable of charming both animals and rocks.
The music was pleasant enough, and if that seems to be damning with faint praise, in this case, “pleasant” was enough. This “Orpheus” is a remarkably unified work, and music is just one of a number of well-balanced elements. Keturah Stickann’s direction and choreography were also well balanced, as was the excellent instrumental ensemble. Most telling was the performance’s impact — a gut reminder of the timelessness of this ancient myth and its message about the fragility of trust.