Tag Archives: Milwaukee Opera Theatre

A Glimpse of Eternity

photo by Mark Frohna

by Jeff Grygny

The ensemble, clad in blue jeans and black T shirts, barefoot and glittering with gold jewelry, stands in a circle around the grief-struck hero. As the last sunlight filters through the stained glass windows of Calvary Presbyterian Church, ancient instruments play solemn music. One player pours water from a ceramic bowl into their neighbor’s bowl, and so on, until the water has completed its way around. It is a powerful embodiment of shared sorrow.

Thus Orfeo resolves to go to the land of the dead to rescue his lost lover Euridice, in a daringly unconventional performance of L’Orfeo, the world’s first great opera, composed by Claudio Monteverdi and first performed in 1607.  The enterprising folks of Milwaukee Opera Theatre have gathered a consort of Renaissance instrument players, collaborated with local sacred music collective Aperi Animam, and created a new English translation of the Italian libretto. The result is an original and conceptually daring work; a pure aesthetic experience unsullied by the demands of commercial entertainment.

Opera was originally conceived as a re-creation of Greek tragedy as described in Aristotle’s Poetics. L’Orfeo is clearly an early effort in what was later to bloom into the glorious emotional excess of grand opera. Musically, there is only one recognizable “hook,” and though the story involves high tragedy and supernatural adventure, the score consistently rings with the cheery pomp of a baroque court. Director/translator Daniel Brylow stages the opera as an initiation into the mystery of Orpheus. The action is stylized, with the feeling of a ceremony enacting a story that has been re-enacted for countless generations. The singers move with stately steps and slow, symbolic gestures. Their faces are passive masks, revealing only the most universal emotions. It’s like looking at a series of ancient friezes: the Elgin Marbles depicting the blinged-up patrons of a biker bar.

photo by Mark Frohna

As is customary with MOT, some of the characters are gender-switched. Jackie Willis sings the title role of Orfeo (pronouns: he, his) with dignity and subtle feeling, exerting all his musical power to win entry into Pluto’s realm. As Apollo, Nicole McCarty’s voice bursts in like sunlight suddenly flooding a dark room. But this is a staged recital, not musical theater, and music takes precedence over characterization and drama.

There’s deep history behind the the show’s culty vibe (which is similar to MOT’s last collaboration with AA, the goth/gnostic spectacle Utterance).  The figure of Orpheus, the musician with magical powers, has always been connected to mystery religions with secret rites and heterodox metaphysics. Some scholars trace their origins to orgiastic cults of Thrace that involved an obscure deity named Zagreus and predate recorded history. That cult evolved into the bacchanalian worship of Dionysus, where it became associated with Orpheus because of its themes of death and rebirth. Later, in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, the rites were reassigned to the god Apollo and linked to Neoplatonist mystical concepts of reincarnation and immortality. Then, in the Renaissance, after Cosimo de Medici commissioned the first European translations of Plato, Neoplatonism and Greek mythology became all the rage once more, inspiring countless artists, musicians and poets. So yeah, that’s a lot of history. And from that we get L’Orfeo.

The new English translation by Daniel Brylow and Joseph Krohlow (which was helpfully projected on the walls to facilitate our understanding),  reveals just how much the libretto invokes Renaissance philosophy. Without getting too deep into the weeds, Neoplatonists taught that the body is the prison of the soul, and through purification and virtue, we can return to our true eternal source in the One beyond the world of change. In this version of the story, Orfeo, just as in the mythic account, turns, sees Euridice, and loses her. But soon after he returns in sorrow to the world of daylight, the god Apollo appears and rewards him with eternal life among the gods, along with Euridice—just as the ancient Orphic cult promised its initiates.

Ritual is one thing for the believer and quite another for the casual audience. At its best, this production illuminates the transcendental metaphysics of its source material and, while it is too stylized to evoke any deep emotional catharsis, it could very conceivably serve as a kind of meditative therapy for the grief that fills our world. But despite all the love and labor that it clearly displays, it begins to feel like a staid church pageant after about the two-hour mark. Nietzsche wrote of the aesthetic struggle between Apollonian rational order and chaotic, visceral Dionysian energy. This L’Orfeo takes Apollo’s side with great integrity—but it’s hard not to wish for just a hint of Thracian revelry to spice the dish.

Milwaukee Opera Theatre and Aperi Animam present

L’Orfeo

Music by Claudio Monteverdi

Libretto by Alessandro Striggio

English translation by Daniel Brylow and Joseph Krohlow

Stage Director: Daniel Brylow

Music Director: Jackie Willis

https://www.milwaukeeoperatheatre.org/

https://www.aperianimam.com/

A Spa for the Soul

photo by Mark Frohna

by Jeff Grygny

On the face of it, artist’s block wouldn’t seem to be the most compelling topic for drama. But in the hands of Milwaukee Opera Theatre, Preludes, a musical fantasia based on a crisis in the life of the Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, feels like what we need in our collective time of stress and long isolation: a wise and gentle path through despair to the vital force that inspires us. There are lots of reasons for putting this show—which plays this week only! — on your must-see list:

  • The appropriately elegant ballroom of the Woman’s Club of Wisconsin, with its high arched proscenium and Romanesque decor, is a very classy venue. Even the chairs have their own uniforms!
  • The impressive bulk and rich timbres of the biggest concert grand piano you’re ever likely to share a room with, ably handed by MOT Music Director Ruben Piirainen sitting in for the melancholy composer.
  • The contemporary stylings of two digital synthesizers, whose blooping, humming tones color the inner world of the artist on his dark journey, washing over you along with the ever-shifting hues of Jim Padovano’s lighting design.
  • The athletic yet nuanced performance of Joe Picchetti as The Artist Known as “Rach,” performing the non-piano parts of the character. Despite being given little to work with but infinite variations on the theme of angst, Picchetti anchors the show in honest, energetic feeling. This is not a depressed Russian composer, it’s a man who is energetically fighting to find his way to the other side.
  • The delightful comic relief of Joel Kopischke, who plays a multitude of famous figures with distinct and diverse qualities: Anton Chekhov (voluble and authentic, bringing his famous gun, and true to the rule, firing it off almost immediately); Tchaikovsky (enthusiastic and handsy); Tolstoy (brilliant and grouchy), and Tsar Nicholas to cap things off.

Natalie Ford brings vibrance and sensitivity to the role of Natalya, Rach’s live-in partner. In one song, she movingly expresses the struggle of people who try to support their loved ones through mental illness. In another speech, she recalls how they fell in love: playing together a four-handed piece by Beethoven. As Nikolay Dahl, the hypnotherapist who treats the composer, Jenny Wanasek brings a calm, gentle presence. Her method is simple. “I thought there would be more sorcery,” Rach says after his first session. But using insight as much as hypnosis, Dahl learns who Rachmaninoff  is, so that when he relives his trauma in trance, she knows just what chords to strike to bring him back into harmony. (The historical Rachmaninoff later dedicated a piano concerto to Dahl).

Molloy offers a curated selection of mostly Rachmaninoff’s works— resonantly delivered by Piirainen on that Cadillac of a piano— many set with original lyrics, along with original songs “suggested by” other Rachmaninoff compositions. The book is packed with evocative imagery: much of the dialog is delivered simultaneously with the music, which, despite the actors being miked,  sometimes leads to an unfortunate struggle to hear both.

Stage Director Jill Anna Ponasik brings her usual playful inventiveness to the table, weaving narrative actions and abstract movements alike into the rhythms of the score. The show, which plays rather like a hybrid of opera, musical theatre, and recital, is set in “Rachmaninoff’s Mind,” which relieves the obligation to be literally historical; indeed, Molloy brings his concerns into the present day by dropping little anachronisms into the dialog. It’s not really about Russia; it could give heart to any folks in difficult times, be they Russian, Ukrainian, or American.

Making art isn’t all about the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves. Like a blossoming lilac, it comes into being of it’s own inner purpose; it effluoresces; it does what it needs to do to move life along. As you sit in the high vaulted space, with the melodies, harmonies, and colors. washing over you it’s like going into a revitalizing trance to connect with something deeper than identity, a place where the travails and the joys of life sound together like the voice of a river whose innumerable plashes merge into a complex chorus singing endlessly about time, the earth, life. It’s like a spa for the soul.

photo by Mark Frohna

Milwaukee Opera Theatre presents

Preludes

Music, Lyrics, Book and Orchestrations by Dave Malloy

playing through April 9

https://www.milwaukeeoperatheatre.org/