Everyone who loves music should experience major musicians up close at least once. There’s a huge difference between hearing an operatic soprano sing Violetta on the stage of the Kennedy Center Opera House — as Elizabeth Futral did last year — and hearing her sing in a small room only a few feet away from you so that the vibrations of her voice resonate through your own body. There’s a difference between hearing a clarinetist on a recital stage and seeing him dance Pied Piper-like around a black-box theater.
These alone are reasons to go see Futral, the clarinetist Todd Palmer and the pianist Melvin Chen performing Ricky Ian Gordon’s song-cycle-cum-chamber-opera “Orpheus and Euridice,” which opened the first festival season of Arlington’s newest opera company, Urban Arias, at Artisphere on Thursday night.
Even more reason: This is the same cast that created the piece when it had its world premiere at Lincoln Center in 2005, and won an Obie, an off-Broadway theater award, for its pains. And yet more reason: It’s a lovely if slender piece, tuneful and poignant. Robert Wood, the conductor who founded Urban Arias, has arranged a blue-chip event for his company’s maiden voyage.
“Orpheus” was actually created as a commission for Palmer, who had the idea of finding another piece to go along with that ubiquitous showpiece for clarinet and soprano, Schubert’s “Der Hirt auf dem Felsen” (“The Shepherd on the Rock”). Rather than the 10-minute work Palmer requested, Gordon ended up producing a song cycle lasting nearly an hour, in which Euridice provides the words while Palmer’s clarinet sings along with her. In the original production, the piece was presented as a kind of choreography; for the Arlington production, the director Kevin Newbury has kept it straightforward and focused on the action. Orpheus and Euridice meet, love and settle down; Euridice falls ill with a lingering sickness and dies. All the action, here, takes place around a single bank of seats, slightly like a waiting room; the fateful, abortive walk when Orpheus attempts to bring her back from the dead leads around the playing area before breaking off and leaving the two players stranded and alone.
There’s little not to like about “Orpheus.” Gordon is a melodist, and Futral floats his songs on a voice that sounds tender and radiant and intimate, scaled to the space she’s singing in. You could say the work is derivative in places — there are strong echoes of Britten’s “Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings” in one song — and you could say, perhaps, that it’s not the most sophisticated music, but neither of those things is exactly criticism: This piece aims to be expressively beautiful through any means possible. Rather than wallowing operatically in the pain of parting, this piece is set to a mood of delicate nostalgia: It limns the growth of love and anguish of loss as if it were a small flower that buds, opens, is plucked at its acme and pressed into a papery simulacrum of itself.
Given the kinds of performances offered here, with Palmer playing redoubtably and Chen sending out sparks and shadows from the keyboard, it’s as fine a way to spend an hour as you can find in the District today — and a good augury for a new presence on the local vocal scene.
“Orpheus and Euridice” will be performed again Sunday and Tuesday at the Artisphere, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. Urban Arias is also offering another Gordon chamber piece, “Green Sneakers,” and Tom Cipullo’s opera “Glory Denied” through April 10.