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Love trumps all in 'Orpheus and Eurydice'

There are more than 60 known operatic versions of the tale of Greek lovers Orpheus and Eurydice, from the first work that can properly be called an opera, says Brava! Opera director Willene Gunn.

According to the ancient myth, Orpheus was more than mortal. He was the son of a muse — and in some versions of the myth, the god Apollo. At birth he was given the gift of music, a gift no mortal could rival. He was deeply in love with his wife, the young maiden Eurydice. When she was bitten by a viper and died, he was overwhelmed by grief and determined to descend into the world of death to bring her back. In the underworld, his music so charmed the dark powers that Eurydice was given back to him — on the condition that he must not look at her during their return to the sunlight. But, as myth would have it, he turned to soon to look at his beloved Eurydice and she slipped back into the shadows of Hades, whispering "farewell."

Composer Christoph Willibald Gluck wrote three versions of "Orpheus and Eurydice" — two in Italian and one in French — during the last decade of the 18th century. One, written by Gluck and his librettist Ranieri de' Calzabigi, presents a much different version, one with a happy ending. This version has no mention of Orpheus being the son of a god, indeed he is quite human.

In the latter version, the grief-stricken Orpheus descends into Hades to retrieve Eurydice and is given the same command not to look at her. As he leads her out, she becomes fearful and begs him to look at her. He can't bear her misery and turns to embrace her, thus she dies. In his loss, he prepares to kill himself and join her. Then Amore, the goddess of love, appears and tells Orpheus that because of his profound depth of love, she will return Eurydice to the living. Thus we have a happy ending.

Brava! Opera Company's production of the timeless love story will combine the two Italian versions with the French version, set the story in ancient Greece, and perform it in English.

Performances are set for 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, March 3-4, and 3 p.m. Sunday, March 6, at Camelot Theatre, 101 Talent Ave., Talent. Willene Gunn will direct, and maestro Martin Majkut of the Rogue Valley Symphony will conduct this fully staged baroque opera.

Tickets are $30, $15 for students, and can be purchased at the theater's box office, online at camelottheatre.org or by calling 541-535-5250.

"I have always been attracted to the simple dramatic beauty of this timeless story," says director Gunn. "It is a wonderful thought that pure overpowering love combined with great music could have the power to bring back to life those we have lost. It has been a special and rewarding experience working on this lovely ancient myth, so perfectly set a couple of centuries ago, one which has so greatly influenced all of opera since."

Tenor Zach Finkelstein plays Orpheus in the Brava! Opera production and sopranos Rose Sawyel and Caitlin Cisler play Amore and Eurydice, respectively. Other professional singers include tenor Jon Lee Keenan, baritone Adrian Rosales, mezzo-soprano Julia Aks and soprano Jocelyn Clare-Thomas. All have performed internationally in China, England, Canada and Austria and in the U.S. with Merola Opera at San Francisco Opera, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Opera, Portland Opera, Madison Opera, Dayton Opera and many other organizations.

A chamber ensemble of musicians from Rogue Valley Symphony will provide accompaniment.

According to Gunn's directors' notes, Gluck and Calzabigi created a substantial departure in the development of opera. They moved away from the format of multiple story lines and subplots — most involving gods and goddesses — to plots with human characters and emotions. Singers were no longer allowed to devise their own flowery embellishments. Gluck used orchestration to support the vocal lines, retaining the emotion of the story while moving the drama forward.

Many composers have written operas based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi's version — that preceded Gluck's — emphasized that Orpheus was the son of gods, and his god-like qualities. Gluck does not mention any relationships to the gods, only Orpheus' recognizable humanity.

Costume design is by Corry Louie and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Set design is by Don Zastoupil, and sound, lighting and video is by Brian O'Connor.

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Professional operatic singers Zach Finkelstein and Caitlin Cisler play Orpheus and Eurydice in Brava! Opera's production of Gluck's timeless love story. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch