Seattle Opera’s tiny Tagney Jones Hall (seating barely more than 150 people, mostly on benches) saw opening night of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Eurydice on Wednesday in a cleverly devised, stripped-down production by Chía Patiño, making her company debut, relying on a projected backdrop plus lighting to create mood and ambiance, there being no other scenery. It’s the first major opera to be mounted in this small space, which has no curtain, stage, wings or flies and thus deserves some description of how it was done. Three narrow entrances at one side and a circular one at the back were the only breaks in the backdrop. A behind the scenes chorus, just three Furies and three Blessed Spirits with more of each projected on the backdrop, plus Orfeo, Eurydice and Amore, comprised the cast, while a very small orchestra of Seattle Symphony players performed behind a low wall at the side under conductor Stephen Stubbs, a balance which worked well. Performed in Italian, subtitles were projected to one side, but were not easily visible to those on the other side of the hall.

Dancers Jaclyn Wheatley, Vincent Michael Lopez and Kaitlyn Nguyen
© Philip Newton

Before the opera began, a muted drum was beaten slowly and unobtrusively, too slow for a heartbeat, more like a tolling bell, very effective, while the backdrop was covered in a star map. A bed was quietly wheeled in with a covered figure on it. And only at this point did the orchestra tune up and the music began as countertenor Christopher Ainslie knelt by the bed, shadowy lighting came up, the tolling ceased and the stars faded. For the first part of the opera, with Orfeo alone, everything was in black and silver, including Orfeo’s wedding outfit of tunic and pants.

When the opera premiered in 1762, the role of Orfeo was sung by a castrato, which continued until the 19th century when it became the norm either to have the role sung by a mezzo-soprano or a tenor, in which case his music had to be transposed to an easier register. Only very recently has it become more common to use a countertenor for this role. Seattle Opera alternates two, Ainslie and Key’mon Murrah.

Christopher Ainslie (Orpheus) and dancers Jaclyn Wheatley, Vincent Michael Lopez and Kaitlyn Nguyen
© Bill Mohn

Ainslie has a powerful voice and an effortless, expressive quality which suited the role admirably. He was on stage alone for a long period after the start, apart from a not entirely successful dream interlude, and all attention was Orfeo's sorrow, not at all easy when there is nothing else on stage to see or disturb the mood. He encompassed his arias and recitatives with ease, showing a largely self-contained grief. Eurydice (soprano Ariana Wehr) appeared in the red-lit dream episode, wearing a singularly unbecoming short white dress, spike heels, garish red lipstick and a permanent huge grin, which was jarring to say the least.

Lighting and costumes throughout are simple and without nuance: black for Orfeo, red for the dream, Amor and the whirling Furies, celestial blue for the Elysian Fields, the Blessed Spirits and Eurydice. The backdrop changes subtly from time to time, the stars sometimes blurry, sometimes becoming clouds, showing more Furies and Blessed Spirits to back up those on stage.

Soprano Sharleen Joynt, in a red jumpsuit with enormous epaulettes and startling red hair, was excellent, both acting and singing: a colorful, vivacious and flirtatious Amore, even when giving serious advice and cautions.

Ariana Wehr (Eurydice)
© Philip Newton

The circular opening at the back provides the opening to the Underworld, and Orfeo must step over the threshold to get there. It’s a small step but a clear one. In this production, a red rope is put around Eurydice and at the end is given to Orfeo. All  the time, the two are singing as he encourages her to follow him, she not understanding his refusal to look at her, and they tug each other in opposite directions. It’s never static. Wehr came into her own here, the first time we hear Eurydice’s voice, and she sang her one aria with conviction and meaning. It’s here that this production veers from what Gluck was forced to do – provide a happy ending. Amore’s return to allow the lovers to be together on earth is scrapped, and Eurydice remains, by her own choice, in the Elysian Fields. This slightly different, shorter ending is set to new music composed with close attention to Gluck’s writing by Stephen Stubbs, and the result is seamless.

The entire audience was required to show proof of vaccination and identity on entry and was urged to wear N or KN95 masks, in the hopes that all 17 days of this run will be Covid free.