Orphée et Eurydice, a streaming production of the IN Series online program Invision, The Logan Operahouse Without Walls, is a cleverly updated version of Gluck’s classic 1762 opera. It features real-life married couple Benjamin Williamson and Paula Sides, along with their children Aurelia and Elijah, singing an English translation by Andrew Albin, while filmed in their home by Jan Capinski and directed by Timothy Nelson, with musical direction by Simone Luti. It retells the ancient Greek story of Orpheus’ journey to the underworld to rescue his beloved Eurydice in a modern setting, exploring how we deal with the loss of a loved one in a world reeling from the suffering of so many COVID-19 deaths.
Benjamin Williamson perfectly captures the shifting emotions of Orpheus as he struggles with Eurydice’s death. He begins the opera sitting motionless on the living room sofa, looking numb, holding onto his children’s hands as they try to pull him off. He collapses in the bedroom holding onto a dress. Later, he races around the house, tossing condolence dinner plates, flowers, and a toothbrush into a garbage bag. He lies in a bathtub, water up to his face, shaking in grief. Later, he lies on the bathroom floor, singing “She is gone, and I am alone” before putting his hands over his face.
His voice is full of emotion, reflecting his pain and loss. He also shows a playful, tender side, dropping an ice cube down Sides’s back, or rubbing his foot on hers as they stretch outside on a blanket. Getting the children ready to play outside, he puts on shoes and jackets, and pushes them on swings. He has a strong physical presence, lying next to Sides on the bed, his feet where her head is, or crawling after her through a tunnel of bedsheets.
Paula Sides gives a quiet strength to Eurydice, joyfully singing of her love for Orpheus even as her body falters. Sometimes she appears wrapped in a bathrobe and headscarf, looking tired and drawn. Other times she is in a white dress with flowing hair, vibrant and full of life, chasing Williamson through the woods or lying next to him on a blanket. Her energy comes through even in a laptop recording Williamson plays, her appearance changing as her illness worsens. She follows the myth well, her back to the audience when Williamson first comes upon her in the flesh, singing clearly and proudly; in fact, we hear her song before we see her. Later, the situation is reversed, and Sides looks at Williamson’s back as she kneels on the bed, her arm outstretched. She follows him through a “tunnel” of bedsheets, reaching out for him while crawling.
The Shenandoah University Conservator Choir serves as the unseen Chorus, performing offscreen, having been recorded at another location and added in later. Although only their voices are heard, their emotion comes through clearly and powerfully. Williamson and Sides’s children Aurelia and Elijah appear throughout the opera, adding to the enormity of Orpheus’ loss, as while grieving, he must also care for them. They pull Williamson up from the bathtub and play with him, charmingly innocent and a joyful reminder that life continues even after death.
Musical Director Simone Luti, who also plays the piano, blends the music with the singing, while letting it help set the tone for certain scenes, either with its presence or absence. The first few minutes is all music, full of loss and pain. At the opera’s end, the music fades, and the children are heard playing. Andrew Albin’s translation is poetic, fitting in well with the music, although some viewers might need closed captioning to fully understand them. Director of Photography Jan Capinski uses film techniques beautifully, for instance giving closeups of Williamson’s and Sides’s faces, or a panoramic view of the living room near the end. Shots done in mirrors allow viewers to see both performers, while Williamson keeps his back to Sides. The camera lingers on the photos on the staircase walls, showing the couple’s happy life. Editors Jonathan Dahm Robinson and Mauricio Pita provide cuts that help move the action along and heighten the drama. Timothy Nelson has done a wonderful job as director, turning an ordinary house into the underworld, while making the transformation feel natural. Orphée et Eurydice is a skillful adaptation for this moment in time, when live performance is challenging, while addressing the universal, timeless human condition. Be sure to catch it!
Running Time: Approximately 80 minutes, with no intermission.