By Julia Purdy
PROCTOR—The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice has been told and retold since ancient times, and this production is a new interpretation in music and dance by Ricky Ian Gordon. The story goes that Orpheus’ mother was a Muse, and he enchanted nature and all its creatures with his lyre. He wooed and married the nymph Eurydice, who was bitten by a snake as she played in the meadows and was taken into the Underworld of the dead. Orpheus resolved to get her back by charming Pluto, the lord of the Underworld, with his music. Pluto relented but on one condition: that as Orpheus led Eurydice back to the surface, he must not look back at her. As they emerged, while Eurydice was still below ground, Orpheus eagerly turned around and she vanished again. He tried to run after her but was blocked, being still among the living.
Quincy Bruckerhoff of Quarterline Design Management, who works with designers and directors, said that when the Vermont Opera Project chose to put on Ricky Ian Gordon’s “Orpheus & Eurydice,” they thought of staging the opera in a marble quarry, which would evoke both Hades and ancient Greek civilization. After exploring some options, the Project approached the Vermont Marble Museum and found that the old mill buildings offered the perfect solution.
The opera is being performed in the former “small monument room,” a two-story, 8,000 sq.ft. space on the ground level of the marble mill, where the pure white marble headstones for Arlington National Cemetery were produced.
The company found the cavernous space to be an excellent choice for a set that must accommodate both above-ground and subterranean action. Liliana Duque-Piñeiro, the set designer recruited from the Bay Area by Bruckerhoff, said, “We had a positive reaction the first time we saw it. It felt like the Underworld to me.”
If a place can be a character in a story, the small monument room would be it. The lofty ceiling disappears into dimness; paint peeling off the exposed ceiling lath might remind of stalactites; stout wooden posts and brackets suggest trees and branches. Exposed girders and pipes, rough-sawn timbers and massive beams bolted together create a gritty contrast to the ethereal, otherworldly mood of the story.
Duque-Piñeiro added, “It was important not to fight the space but to embrace it.”
At the back wall is a cave-like freight elevator—the entrance to Hades. Two massive blocks of concrete on the floor suggest a dwelling. The audience will enter the “theater” through a long passage under the Museum, symbolizing a descent into Hades.
Duque-Piñeiro adroitly conceptualizes the intertwining of the worlds of the living and the dead in her minimalistic set and props. The center of the performance space contains a long, spiraling platform of boards that gradually rises into a ramp. The weathered, random-length boards were in storage in a Danby barn and donated by the owners. Duque-Piñeiro appreciates the way they represent “trees that used to be alive, died, then come alive as an object” on the set.
An antique quilted bedspread will cover Euridice’s marriage bed and its rayed flower pattern echoes the garlands and bouquets that she uses to decorate their house—another subtle reference to the cycle of birth, growth and death.
Thanks to the concrete floor, the “dwelling” will be able to have real candles and a hearth with real flames, and at one point real rain will fall.
On Thursday, Aug. 4, Jeff Bruckerhoff, the managing director of the company and Quincy’s husband, was on a ladder doing electrical work. About a dozen volunteers built the set.
“I think this opera is perfect for everybody,” Duque-Piñeiro said. “It’s an opera but it has theater in it also.”
Music carries the story line, the airy notes of the clarinet and the rich vocal tones of Kantorski weaving the tapestry of the lovers’ relationship. Dancers function as the classical Greek chorus, ghosts, the Furies, and townspeople. Nationally known dancer-director-choreographer Keturah Stickann directs the choreography.
Suzanne Kantorski, a Rutland native, returned about ten years ago and makes her home amid the “peace and privacy” of Tinmouth while still traveling to perform and teaching part-time at Castleton University. Her Eurydice is both winsome and passionate. As a grad student at McGill University in Montreal, she became interested in “site-specific” opera, of which this production is an example. In June 2011 it was performed by Opera Theater of Pittsburgh in the Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh.
Wesley Christensen plays Orpheus, whose “speaking part” is carried out entirely by clarinet. Christensen, a native of Middletown Springs, is on the faculty of the Monteverdi Music School in Montpelier, freelances in the area, and has his own chamber music trio, Reed, Rosin and Pedal, which performs 20th century classical music. Christensen described his experience mastering “Orpheus & Eurydice”:
“At times I have found it difficult finding a way to interact with the characters and physical surroundings on stage while at the same time maintaining focus on the music. Acting while playing can be a challenge, because you can not speak or communicate through hand gestures or facial expressions. Running while playing is very difficult, I’ve tried it, and I wouldn’t recommend it… This role pushes the boundaries of the clarinet and what is possible for an instrumentalist. I’ve learned to not just play the notes but to sing them and in that way I feel that the music that I’m playing is my voice flowing through the clarinet.”
“Orpheus & Eurydice” will be performed at the Vermont Marble Museum in Proctor on Friday and Saturday, Aug. 12-13, at 8 p.m., with pre-performance talks by composer Ricky Ian Gordon at 7 p.m. both days. Weather permitting, bring blankets and picnic baskets to the village park for a sunset supper before the show.
Tickets are $45 both nights, general admission, available through vtoperaproject.com/tickets or at the Vermont Marble Museum box office on Friday.
The Vermont Marble Museum is located in the village center of Proctor, on VT-Route 3 between US Route 4 in Rutland and US Route 7 in Pittsford. At the (only) stop sign on Route 3, turn west over the marble bridge and continue to the park and the Vermont Marble Museum.
Who: The Vermont Opera Project with two Vermont-born artists, soprano Suzanne Kantorski as Euridice, and clarinetist Wesley Christensen as Orpheus.
What: “Orpheus and Eurydice,” a song cycle in two acts by Ricky Ian Gordon.
When: Friday-Saturday, Aug. 12-13 at 7 p.m.
Where: The Vermont Marble Museum in Proctor, Vt. The innovative production will be performed in an 8,800 square-foot former manufacturing space within the Marble Museum.
How much: $45 general admission, available through vtoperaproject.com/tickets
What next: The opera will be performed again at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 10-11.
Soprano Suzanne Kantorski