Construction paper rectangles in varying shades of blue covered the stage walls, giving the usual wood paneling a vibrant tint. Three massive white orbs hung from the ceiling, radiating soft, white light. A choir, seated at the rear of the stage on risers, was partially obscured by a monolithic, black ramp. Amid all the scenery, the orchestra settled at the front of the stage seemed almost insignificant. The chamber ensemble, augmented by harp and harpsichord, appeared lost amid a modern art performance piece. And then came the movement artists.
Thursday’s semi-staged performance of the 1762 opera “Orfeo ed Euridice” by Christoph Willibald Gluck, which was recorded for a future ASO Media release, looked like nothing the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has ever presented. But aided by the nearly faultless ASO Chamber Chorus,movement artists from Glo and what is in all likelihood the greatest combination of solo voices to grace the Symphony Hall stage, Gluck’s Baroque opera appeared not charmingly anachronistic but thoroughly modern. A staging that could have skewed pretentious worked beautifully, bringing continued relevance to an opera caught up in love, loss and redemption.
It took a lot of work for the evening to come together. Music director Robert Spano, who led the symphony and chorus with vigor and enthusiasm, collaborated on the project with Director of Choruses Norman MacKenzie, Glo founder Lauri Stallings, Daniel Arsham, who conceptualized the scenography, and director James Alexander. Stallings and Spano have a long history of music-dance collaboration, but “Orfeo” is the duo’s first full-scale orchestral undertaking in Symphony Hall.
In their solo roles, countertenor David Daniels and sopranos Janai Brugger and Susanna Phillips were exquisitely sublime. For much of its history, the Gluck opera has been performed by mezzo sopranos singing a role originally written for an operatic castrati. But with the continued prevalence of countertenors — men who sing in a practiced head voice that fits in the mezzo range — many modern performances and recordings have eschewed women in the title role. Daniels, who last sang “Orfeo” in Atlanta with the Atlanta Opera in 2009, has a voice that is unlike anything else. Countertenor voices have been described as otherworldly, a vocal type that somehow sounds a bit off — squeezed, unnatural, lacking power and presence. By this metric, Daniels is not merely a countertenor. Daniels’ overall sound — timbre, dimension, grain, quality — is unmatched.
Throughout the opera, seven women in nude leotards alternately reacted to the music, responded to the emotional content of the singing with modern contortions, and became part of the storyline. For the most part, these artists, moving with deliberate, delicate care, functioned as movable sculpture, fashioning themselves into pieces of art to match the opera’s mood. Gluck included the option for elongated ballet passages in the opera. While these are sometimes not performed, the musical interludes gave the Glo artists a chance to fully interact with the story.
In the past, semi-staged productions at the ASO have been a mixed bag; presenting a quasi-table read of an opera can come across as strained and unnatural. The standard-bearer for successful semi-staged evenings has been John Adams’ “Dr. Atomic,” which the ASO and chorus performed in 2008. For that event, Adams traveled to Atlanta to assist with the production. Who knows what Gluck would say had he the chance to see the sculptural movement artists interpreting his work in front of glowing orbs. Perhaps he’d see that this contemporary take is not out of place at all.