Dance takes center stage in Lyric Opera of Chicago's bold season-opening co-production of Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice. Gluck expanded his opera in 1774 to profile the soloists and corps de ballet of the Paris Opéra, but it is increasingly rare for opera companies to maintain such resources. At the heart of this promising first collaboration with Chicago's Joffrey Ballet is Milwaukee-native choreographer John Neumeier, longtime head of the Hamburg Ballet, where this production of Orphée et Eurydice will land in February of 2019 after performances in Los Angeles next March. Neumeier's creative role includes all stage direction and extends to production design (assisted by Heinrich Tröger and Chris Maravich). Integrating the dancers into the overall narrative while keeping a focus on the three vocal soloists, Neumeier manages to preserve a level of intimacy in this organic and reflective reworking of Gluck's myth of love and loss.

Andriana Chuchman (Eurydice) © Todd Rosenberg
Andriana Chuchman (Eurydice)
© Todd Rosenberg

What if Eurydice cannot in fact return to life? The mythological possibility of her revival is erased during the staged Overture, which establishes a framing story involving Orphée as a choreographer of a dance ensemble with Eurydice as its star. Eurydice arrives late to rehearsal, disengaged, and storms off when Orphée demands her focused attention. When moments later she spills forth from a car crash at the rear of the stage, Orphée's grief becomes stained with regret. His initial response, however, is shock, as he silently receives news of her death via cellphone.

Dmitry Korchak (Orphée), Andriana Chuchman (Eurydice) and The Joffrey Ballet © Todd Rosenberg
Dmitry Korchak (Orphée), Andriana Chuchman (Eurydice) and The Joffrey Ballet
© Todd Rosenberg

As the Lyric's superb chorus begins its lament for Eurydice, Neumeier establishes key contours of his production approach. The chorus sings hidden in the orchestra pit while Orphée remains isolated on a small grass-covered stage extension and black-clad dancers onstage embody various reactions to the tragedy: despair, frustration, anguish, consolation. When Orphée returns to the main stage and approaches the scene of the accident, Eurydice has already become an elusive ghost-like figure. The set of the dance studio, with its mirrored walls and a corner architectural set piece featuring a door and window, has begun to morph, but its main elements and shapes will remain fundamental through to the very end of the performance, suggesting along the way various layers of memory and complex psychological pathways. Subtle lighting with select color accents play up the symbolic value of shadows and emotional turning points.

When Orphée's studio assistant reveals herself to be Amour, sung with impressive agility, precision and energy by Lauren Snouffer, she urges him to use his musical gifts to appease the furies and reclaim Eurydice. Unlocking the self-referential nature of Neumeier's dance rehearsal frame and Böcklin's famous painting Isle of the Dead (a replica sits on an easel in the dance studio), Orphée proceeds to confront his inner grief nourished by art, clutching his rehearsal score while memory of Eurydice is kept alive through photographs and personal mementos. The end goal is not the miraculous reward of her return from the underworld, but acceptance of her passing and a degree of inner peacefulness.

The Joffrey Ballet and Dmitry Korchak (Orphée) © Todd Rosenberg
The Joffrey Ballet and Dmitry Korchak (Orphée)
© Todd Rosenberg

If I wasn't immediately won over by Dmitry Korchak's entrance aria as the vulnerable protagonist, my appreciation of his robust timbre and ability to navigate variegated emotional territory grew considerably as he launched "L’espoir renaît dans mon âme". Orphée's climactic aria "J'ai perdu mon Eurydice" began powerfully as a visceral response to the reality of Eurydice's death, before achingly entering more fragile realms. I also warmed gradually to the Lyric Orchestra's reading of the score, led by Harry Bicket, preferring their more sharply defined emotional spaces but also the noumenal qualities of the expansive Elysium scene. As Eurydice, Andriana Chuchman made an immediately positive impression with her consistently rich, gleaming tone. She sings and moves seemingly effortlessly, with tremendous grace.

Orphée's encounter with the Furies involves the Joffrey Ballet dancers moving largely en bloc, as an irregular collective that is gradually tamed, in addition to a trio of darker, demonic figures. The Elysium scene focuses instead on partner work of a more traditional orientation, saturated by gentle lifts that suggest weightlessness in part through the fluttered movement of layered organza dresses, reminding us of Eurydice's spiritual residue rather than her corporeal being. Neumeier's elegant costuming includes expansive Hakama pants and cutaway vests for the male dancers, both of which magnify their motions and lend them an ethereal quality in this pale, bleached-out world.

Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili © Todd Rosenberg
Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili
© Todd Rosenberg

Orphée's trajectory reaches its end in his return to his dance ensemble as they embark on their final dress rehearsal, realized in deep earth tones. Traces of the spiritual world remain, if perhaps only in Orphée's mind and ours. Gluck's final chain of dances includes a breathtaking embodiment of love in Neumeier's choreography of the principals Temur Suluashvili and Victoria Jaiani, whom we have come to associate with Orphée and Eurydice. They create a lingering impression of harmony and hope as Orphée endeavors to carry on.