The New York City Opera has been on an Odyssean voyage since setting sail from the financially burdensome port of Lincoln Center, with “its return to its birthplace, New York City Center” set for next April, according to the teller of tales that is next season’s brochure. The journey has been a chance for artists and audiences to discover new locales and meet unexpected challenges. Now they have come ashore at El Museo del Barrio, where their trial is to enact Georg Telemann’s ORPHEUS, which itself was rediscovered just over 30 years ago.
The Museo’s teatro, a former school auditorium decorated with storybook murals and tassled curtains, is the perfect isle on which to hear one of the more fabulous Greek myths, to which the libretto has added the murderous doings of a jealous queen and the moralizing allegories of the Baroque. Rebecca Taichman’s staging is both lush and spare, the dress modern, giving the vile queen Orasia a haughty upper class sense of entitlement and casting Pluto, the lord of the underworld, in the mold of a technocratic CEO who enforces a metallic conformity upon his denizens. A remarkable figure is created in the person of Thanatos, played by a dancer named Catherine Miller who sings not a word but whose sinuous choreography speaks a thousand of them.
The tale is told of the singer who persuades Pluto to release his beloved from Hades on the catch that he refrain from looking back at her as they go back to the surface. Their return is brilliantly staged, with the lovers pushed around on wheeled platforms (perhaps representing ferries on the River Styx), so that Orpheus must go to great lengths not just to resist the temptation to look, but to guard against being turned in her direction through no fault of his own. Of course at the fatal moment, one of the great moments of psychological truth in all mythology, both carts are completely still, behind his back there is total silence, and we all know the result. There is more to come above ground, and vengeance to be fulfilled, or perhaps resisted. Orpheus will sing to Orasia a bitter rebuke and Thanatos once more will dance her dances.
For information on El Museo del Barrio, click here.