The New York City Opera has spent the season reinventing itself from a large company with a large theater to a peripatetic one presenting small works. Perhaps it was apt that they closed their season with Telemann’s Orpheus. Not only was it one of the first stagings of any Telemann opera in the United States: it also presents a radically reworking of a familiar story that seems unwilling to confine itself to one geographic location.

© Carol Rosegg
© Carol Rosegg

Like the Florentine Camerata before him and Wagner after him, Telemann attempted to combine lots of different things into a super-opera. He sought to make use of the best elements of German, French, and Italian musical styles, but the result is more a collage than a synthesis. The libretto, based on a French source, obliges his scavenger hunt, switching languages whenever the musical style shifts. The majority of the score is in German, but arias of languid sorrow and choruses are mostly in French, and rage and love are deemed most fittingly Italian. A one-composer, multilingual pasticcio, it’s hard to think of any other opera that is anything like it.

To the traditional Orpheus myth, the libretto adds a queen, Orasia, the biggest sing of the opera. Orasia, suffering the pangs of unrequited love after being spurned by Orpheus, sets the snake on Euridice and, when Orpheus remains uninterested after his unsuccessful voyage to Hades, she sets the Bacchantes on him. Finally she repents, sort of.

Orpheus’ father Apollo does not appear, and indeed Telemann’s opera is far less elegant and detached than Gluck’s. Orasia’s uncontrolled rage (recalling Elettra of Mozart’s Idomeneo) injects energy into the plot, as do the sprightly French choruses. There are a few duets, but much of the music consists of the standard opera seria succession of arias linked by recitative. Many of those arias are da capo, though simpler than Handel’s. The first half moves at a brisk pace, but the opera drags badly towards the end.

But for an opera seria, the melange of styles is rather hard to take seriously. Rebecca Taichman’s busy production never tries. She begins at Orpheus and Euridice’s wedding with a modern setting full of cellphone cameras and bridesmaids on the prowl. In Hades, Pluto enjoys a lair worthy of a James Bond villain (or maybe Dr. Evil), complete with spinning chair and minions pounding on keyboards. The simple set of a few moving tables effectively frames the action, and Taichman keeps the action moving naturally, with an excellent sense of when characters can or cannot “hear” each other. But it all ends up being something less than the sum of its parts, chattering with nothing compelling to say.

For one thing, for an opera entitled “Orpheus”, the singer himself isn’t very interesting, and lacks an aria as memorable as Gluck’s “Che farò senza’ Euridice” or Monteverdi’s “Possente spirto.” Baritone Daniel Teadt conveyed Orpheus’ narcissistic tendencies, but sounded growly and indistinct. It’s the spurned Orasia and her many bravura flights that hold our attention: Jennifer Rowley stormed around in a ball gown with stature that makes the sweet lovers look very young and innocent. She sang with impressive commitment and technique, her big Mozartean soprano filling the theater through both coloratura and declamatory passages, despite a few high notes going awry. She and Pluto were often accompanied by a spirit of death, danced by Catherine Miller to Mark Dendy’s snaky choreography. While first intriguing, her incessant presence turned irritating. More importantly, the production never achieved much in the way of depth. Perhaps this was inherent in the very stylized material, but when it comes to stage movement less is sometimes more, and might have helped us become more emotionally invested in Orasia or Orpheus’ plights.

Despite reduced circumstances, the City Opera has mostly done a good job of casting. Joélle Harvey wielded a sweet, light soprano as Euridice, and Nicholas Pallesen was both funny and vocally solid as Pluto. Telemann’s score gives rewarding arias even to the small roles, and soprano Meredith Lustig and mezzo Daryl Freedman were both excellent, while tenor Victor Ryan Robertson started off decently but seemed to tire. Michelle Areyzaga sang Ismene in the first half but was replaced by Joanna Ruszala for the second.

One wishes that City Opera could still afford the normal accoutrements of a proper opera company, the first and foremost of those things being a chorus. There are not many choruses in this opera, but the four-person ensemble of supporting players still didn’t do the job very well. The small orchestra played modern instruments with the exception of the theorbo, harpsichord, and recorders, and sounded worlds better than they had in Così fan tutte in March, though still less than ideally coordinated. Gary Thor Wedow conducted with enthusiasm.

The opera is more an oddity than anything else—or, at least, it was in this presentation, despite the efforts of the cast. Telemann’s music is tuneful and charming without often rising to greatness, nor did Taichman seem eager to push the drama into somewhere below the surface. While a fun and unusual piece, it’s hard to imagine wanting to see it twice, or clamoring for more Telemann operas anytime soon. Perhaps another production could make a stronger case for them as vital rather than mere pleasant diversion.