Orpheus and Euridice – A timeless Greek myth forever ingrained into the classical music repertoire. Since the very beginnings of operatic history, this heartbreaking and beautiful tale has endured numerous adaptions. No doubt the most famous version remains Gluck’s Orpheus and Euridice, in which the original tragic ending is reversed, yet other equally charming albeit more obscure operatic settings exist. Such is Marc Antoine Charpentier’s La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers. Incomplete and rarely performed, this 17th-century gem was given a delightful, historically-informed presentation by the newly-formed Haymarket Opera Company to enthusiastic acclaim on opening night.

Carlos Fittante © Eric Bandiera
Carlos Fittante
© Eric Bandiera

Continuing the Ovid’s Metamorphoses theme proposed at the company’s premiere last year, the small-budget yet determined company scored another hands-down win in this simple yet exquisite and well-thought-out production. Though this production was small-scale compared to those of more established period opera groups, it was undoubtedly more lavish than the company’s last in costumes, sets, and cast. The ingenuity in creating lavish yet equally affordable sets continued to amaze me throughout the production’s duration. The reversible, well-painted scenery with vivid detail made up for the absence of large-scale props and drew me into the story. Supplemental, smaller-scale props like flowers or a wheel of slavery in Tartarus were present, and these accented the lovely scenery and contributed to the rhetorical messages encoded in the cast’s dazzling and colorful historical costumes composed of rich brocades, sparkling golds and vibrant aquas.

In the same manner, while the cast did not consist of big-name Baroque opera stars, each singer possessed a light and charmingly authentic Baroque voice, marvelously and cleanly executing the difficult ornaments signature to this highly exotic branch of Baroque music. Like the ornaments on a Christmas tree tastefully placed to accent the outline of the tree, the singers’ execution of these musical ornaments always succeeded in accenting, not obscuring the main melody of each aria. Purity resonated in voice and acting at all times. Of the cast, Carrie Henneman Shaw as the ill-fated and innocent Euridice and booming bass Peter van de Graaff as the stalwart Lord of the Underworld Pluto particularly captured my attention. Although I felt at times that the voice of Marc Molomot as Orpheus was somewhat weak at certain points of the opera, his overall vocal performance and tender facial expressions succeeded in outweighing this very minor negative within the portrayal of his character. Fluid and delicate Baroque gesture was used at all times; the Doctrine of the Affections was heeded via both these gestures and the vibrant acting – a true spectacle showcasing a wide spectrum of subtle and strong emotions ranging from demonic fury to tender infatuation which wonderfully echoed the real world.

Not only did the cast include a larger number of singers, but it also contained a rarely-seen delight which I have so long yearned to see– genuine Baroque dancers. The two featured Baroque dancers – Robin Gilbert and Carlos Fittante – captivated my attention as they delicately skipped and whirled across the stage, always accenting the important dance steps with their Cinderella-style, authentic Baroque shoes. Equally mesmerizing and exotic proved the musical ensemble containing rarer Baroque instruments such as viola da gamba, theorbo, recorders – soprano, alto, and voice flute – alongside the familiar favorites of Baroque violin and harpsichord. While John Lent’s tinkling and ethereal theorbo playing reinforced the message of Orpheus as a lyre-playing minstrel, the sweet, flowing recorder-playing of Patrick O’Malley and American Recorder Society president Lisette Kielson succeeded in predominantly stealing my attention.

Still hours after the performance, I find myself meditating upon this magical night of French Baroque delight. Not only have I experienced French Baroque singing for the first time, but I have also seen real Baroque dance and enjoyed the full spectrum of recorders required for authentic Baroque performance. Pondering over all my previous opera experiences, I find this one especially precious and magical, providing excellent inspiration to me as I continue my own Baroque musical studies. Bravo once again to the Haymarket Opera Company!