Monday, August 15, 2016

On the Fringes of the Fringe Fest

I like the new Fringe Fest concept: buy a wrist band for $16.00 and you're into every show you want to see on that particular day (presuming it doesn't sell out). After you've seen one, why not see another one?

Our attention was focused on the production of Orpheus and Eurydice by Garden of Song Opera at the Mixed Blood Theater. It  takes a lot from Gluck's opera of 1762 but also quite a bit from Shelly Duvall's Fractured Fairy Tales. It's a good mix.

Until the explosion of interest in Baroque opera a few decades ago (Explosion? How about an occasional tremor?) Orpheus and Eurydice was the oldest opera to be performed regularly, and it still is. It has some of the aristocratic languor that fell from favor during the classical period...but not too much of it. The drama moves ahead, the story-line is simple, and the melodies are lovely. In fact, although the work is never dull, the tunes are so uniformly pleasant that I had to ask myself several times, during the Fringe performance, whether a vocalist was singing the same aria she'd sung before.

The three voices (mezzo Sara Fanucchi, coloratura soprano Betsie Feldkamp, soprano Carmelita Guse) were uniformly strong, and also varied in timbre to match the roles. The use of piano accompaniment was strangely effective, and the removal of an hour of the music and dance from the original opera didn't affect the storyline much. There was passion and humor, torment and dejection, but also sight-gags and theatrical hijinks here and there to keep the audience amused. 

Orpheus finds a first-aid kit in his satchel. Cupid tippy-toes effortlessly across the stage with arms raised like a ballerina.

More important than anything is the fact that the music shines through.

In Gluck's opera (spoiler alert!) Orpheus succeeds, with Cupid's help, in bringing Eurydice back from the underworld. In most versions of the original Greek myth, he looks back at the last minute and she returns to the land of the dead once and for all. Then he goes crazy with sorrow and is ripped to shreds by wild animals.
Gluck's version is romantic. But is it shallow? The Greek version is darker and more fatalistic. But does the turn of events actually mean anything?

No one seems to know. Both Freud and Jung took a shot at meaning, but both fell well short of coming to grips with the central issue, which doesn't involve Orpheus or Eurydice at all. The central question is, why did Hades insist that Orpheus never look back? Is this a love story or a contest between Orpheus (the greatest musician in history) and Eurydice (which means "wide justice")?

Or does it come down to the fact that at a critical juncture, the great musician flubbed his timing?

Plenty of ink has been spilled on the issue.  I've been perusing (alongside my Ovid, Calasso, and Robert Graves) a book called Orpheus: the Song of Life, by Ann Wroe. She examines the musician's character from every angle and considers every source and variation from Homer to Jean Cocteau—who made a film version of the story, complete with beatniks, mirrors, and limousines. But Wroe is content to present us with alternative interpretations based on wide-ranging research, trusting in her open, speculative approach and limpid prose to obscure the fact that she never really arrives at a conclusion about the meaning of this or any other tale in which Orpheus is involved.

Well, I can live with the mystery, though I also enjoy a happy ending.

From the Mixed Blood Theater we wandered over to the U of M's Barker dance studio to see a performance called The Seven-Colored Bird. This, too, had a mythic story-line, both more modern and more primitive than the opera we'd just seen. The narrator (whose text could easily have been edited down a bit) kept harping on death, which lurks in the shadows, as he told a tale of mother-daughter rivalry, a journey to repair a broken vase past trees without fruit and oceans without fish. The story was grim but the dancing was robust, as the young and agile traveler was initially transfixed by, and then threatened by, the elements she met one after the other. In each case she escapes, and also offers to help these unhappy creatures bear fruit.

I especially liked the ocean dancers in their frothy turquoise gowns. The seven-colored bird (played as a unit by three dancers) was impressive but malevolent—I think that was the idea. There were interesting hand gestures and quite a bit of rolling around on the floor. The soundtrack consisted of a succession of pop tunes performed by radically different artists, each with a distinct sound and energy. Yet the mash-up worked.  

Now thoroughly in the mood, we stuck around for one last dance performance in the same theater called Life, Beautiful. Here the dancing was more precise, perhaps, and the dancers more lithe, but the first three pieces took me back to the days of the Danny Kaye Show: plastic smiles, "jazzy" steps, expert but heartless movement. A few of the subsequent numbers had depth: sorrow, carrying each other around, climbing aboard the body, heavy on the strings.

There was too much going on in the Cities last week:not only the week-long Fringe Fest, but the Early Music Fest, the Source Song Fest, the Irish Fest. On Sunday afternoon we attended a free piano recital associated with the Polish Fest at St. Anthony Main at which Michael Lu absolutely killed Prokofiev's Seventh Piano Sonata. And a very young performer named Madeline Pape brought some depth of feeling to a Rachmaninoff prelude, too.

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