Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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“Orphee” at the Lobero – José Maria Condemi, Opera Santa Barbara, Mount Gluck’s Masterpiece in Intimate Venue – April 29, 2012

May 5th, 2012

Santa Barbara’s historic Lobero theater was originally built in 1873.  The theater’s namesake was an Italian immigrant who Hispanicized his first name, Giovanni, to become Jose. Many celebrities of stage and screen have appeared on the theater’s stage.

It was retrofitted in the 1990s to meet California’s stringent earthquake standards, with ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov inaugurating the latest “new era” in the landmark’s history. Presently a 680 seat theater (in olden days it had a balcony), it was the home to Opera Santa Barbara, until that company moved to the much larger (1500 seats) and newly restored Granada Theater for most of its operas.

Thus, the Opera Santa Barbara has access to two theaters. Its next season will play exclusively in the Granada, whose seating capacity is greater than such theaters as, say, Glimmerglass Festival’s Alice Busch Theater (900 seats), Strasbourg, France’s Opera National du Rhin (1143 seats) and Zurich Staatsoper (1200 seats).

Performing the opera in the Lobero, the smaller theater, means, of course, that fewer tickets can be sold, but the house appeared full and an unused ticket for a seat near me that had been turned in a few minutes prior was re-sold at the box office without any trouble.

[Below: the interior of Santa Barbara’s Lobero Theater viewed from its stage; edited image of a photograph from the Lobero Theater website.]

Notes on the Production’s Creative Team

I had reported on José Maria Condemi’s conceptualization of the French version of Gluck’s opera two months ago at the Seattle Opera [See my review at  William Burden Triumphs in Gluck’s “Orphee et Eurydice” – Seattle Opera, February 29, 2012.]

The difference in size and scope of productions performed in Seattle and Santa Barbara are considerable, yet both are approached similarly. The elements of both productions were devised three years ago for  the West Bay Opera in Palo Alto, California, which although operating in an even smaller 460 seat theater, is noted for its ambitious tackling of works designed for much larger houses.

As in the other theaters in which versions of this production have shown, the costumes were deliberately “timeless”, rather than attempting to recreate a historical period.

A trio of artists had conceptualized the 2009 Palo Alto production. Two of the three are Argentine born, the stage director (and Opera Santa Barbara artistic director) Jose Maria Condemi and  the conductor (and West Bay Opera general director) Jose Luis Moscovich. The third was the Greek born choreographer Yannis Adoniou. Condemi, Muscovich, and Adoniou were respectively stage director, conductor and choreographer at the Lobero.

If the classical era of Gluck and Mozart is remembered as a era when a person of talent could excel in very distinct fields of endeavor, Moscovich, the conductor, has a classicist’s drive for expertise in widely different areas. Not only is he the administrator of the West Bay Opera Company and that company’s principal conductor, he is a Grammy nominee, and he also sits as Executive Director of the Transportation Authority for the City and County of San Francisco.

The Musical and Dramatic Performance

“Orphee et Eurydice”, the augmented French version of Gluck’s “Orfeo”, redesigned for Marie Antoinette’s Paris, has much to offer a 21st century audience, particularly the abundance of melody. It also is a practical offering for budget-challenged opera companies.

Opera Santa Barbara was able to  mount the production, which requires only three principal singers, with a 30 piece orchestra, a 19 member chorus and six dancers, and modest but serviceable sets, without the production feeling minimalist.

[Below: Orphee (Layna Chianakas, far left) grieves at the funeral for his wife Eurydice (Marnie Breckenridge, carried by mourners at right); edited image of a photograph, courtesy of Opera Santa Barbara.]

Unlike Seattle, whose opera company has a special relationship with the extraordinary tenor William Burden, the opera’s title role in Santa Barbara was sung by a mezzo-soprano, Greek-American Layna Chianakas.

Gluck’s glorious music, so important to the development of the classical opera style of his younger contemporary, Mozart, will sound just as beautiful if sung by a fine mezzo voice, as by a high tenor. Chianakas, who has sung the title role of Bizet’s “Carmen” at Opera Santa Barbara, was dramatically and visually effective in the male role of Orphee. Dressed in a dark costume, sporting a short pony tail, she effectively projected the persona of the grieving widower.

Eurydice was nicely sung and acted by Marnie Breckenridge. A former Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Singer, both she and her Orphee, Chianakas, are associated with the West Bay Opera. Angela Cadelago sang the role of L’Amour. That character, as in both the Palo Alto and Seattle versions, has bee-like wings and rides a bicycle with a magical lyre in its basket.

Condemi is one of the contemporary stage directors who is concerned with the motivations and actions of each individual on stage, whether principal, chorister or dancer. Gluck’s Parisian version of “Orphee” contains a series of dances, some of which are constructed from among the most familiar of all of Gluck’s output of melodies.

The six dancers have dramatic functions beyond their dancing. As an example, they engage in mourning rituals, smearing mud from bowls they carry. At the Elysian Fields they use the pure water found there in rituals of rejuvenation.

The dancers appear both when principals and choristers are singing, and alone. Dance sequences are organized, partly by Gluck, partly by the creative team, in a succession that moves the action forward. Either Orphee or Eurydice, occasionally both, will usually be present during the dance sequences. (Condemi ends the opera at the final chorus in which the gods resolve all issues, and cuts the dances, which do not have a dramatic purpose, that Gluck wrote to end the performance.)

[ Below: Orphee (in dark clothes at left pillar, holding lyre) uses magical powers to subdue the forces of Hades; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of Opera Santa Barbara.]

The costuming of the choristers representing the forces of Hades are cleverly constructed, each chorister encased in a tubular costume in which they writhe about.

Subduing the terrors of Hades gains Orphee entrance to the Elysian Fields where the choristers, with serene, eternally blissful smiles, have made Eurydice feel so welcome that she has second thoughts as to whether she really wants to be returned to Earth.

[Below: Eurydice (Marnie Breckenridge, center, in white); edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the Opera Santa Barbara.]

The second death of Eurydice (Orphee, though he was forbidden to do so, has looked back at her) appears to make the journey into the underworld a futile act, but, at this point, the gods decide they’ve played with the couple enough.

[Below: Orphee (Layna Chianakas, above) is in despair at the apparent death of Eurydice (Marnie Breckenridge, below); edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the Opera Santa Barbara).]

The Deus Ex Machina

With chorus and dancers present, the god Amour steps off of a machine, the bicycle (permitting me to repeat some word-play for my second “Orphee” review this year), and cancels both of Eurydice’s deaths, reuniting husband and wife, providing the happy ending so expected  of 18th century operas.

[Below: L’Amour (Angela Cadelago, left front center, in pink) brings Eurydice (Marnie Breckenridge, right, in white) back to life, to the relief of Orphee (Layna Chianakas, front left in dark clothes); edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the Opera Santa Barbara .]

Condemi, still in his first year of the artistic directorship at Opera Santa Barbara, has taken on the role of educator in opera appreciation. He and choreographer Adonoiu invited the audience to join him afterwards, as Seattle Opera General Director Speight Jenkins does after every performance in Seattle, to discuss the opera they have just seen.

Condemi works the crowd, as well, in the ways that  I have noted that Francesca Zambello does at her Glimmerglass Festival. The subscribers and donors, of course, get even more attention, the latter having a pleasant buffet meal and libations in a large tent set up next to the Lobero.

Next year, Opera Santa Barbara will offer larger scale operatic works in the Granada Theater, twice the Lobero’s size. But the historic Lobero was a very nice setting for Condemi’s presentation of Gluck’s wonderful score in its felicitous French version.


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