Dallas — Without the tragic denouement, the classic myth of Orpheus as told by Ovid makes for a perfectly rounded narrative. Baroque era composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s chamber opera La descente d’Orphée aux enfers (The Descent of Orpheus to the Underworld) sets the ancient tale in lush, enchanting music in the French Baroque style, characterized by opulent vocal lines and vibrant dance rhythms.
The American Baroque Opera Co. presented an inspired interpretation of Charpentier’s score, which they called simply Orphée, to open their 2019-2020 season, which they’ve titled “A Hero’s Journey.” Fitting, as the poem tells of newlyweds Orphée and Eurydice, whose wedding day ends in tragedy when Eurydice is bitten by a poisonous snake. Orphée journeys into the Underworld, armed with his lyre and charming song, and persuades Pluto to let him leave with his young wife. This is how Charpentier’s opera concludes, omitting Orphée’s breach of Pluto’s demands, which leads to Euridice being sent back to the Underworld.
In the title role of Orphée, Nicholas Garza’s lithe countertenor was expressive, sensitive, and tender. His navigation between the tenor and alto ranges was clean, producing a warmth that was endearing to the character.
In the supporting role of Daphne, soprano Leslie Hochman offered a welcome reading of the role and was a vocal standout in this cast. Her middle range was full and buoyant with a lilt that blended into a silvery high end that was dramatic and declarative.
Soprano Anna Fredericka Popova was effective in the double roles of Euridice and Persephone, Pluto’s wife. Baritone Brandon Gibson, also in a double role of Apollo, Orphée’s father, and Pluto, was at times heavy and a bit pitchy, but offered a useful balance in texture to the ensemble.
Stage director Rebecca Choate Beasley’s semi-staging was efficient in the space and marked with Baroque stylized poses and posturing. The narrative was augmented with beautiful choreography at the opera’s open and close by Avant Chamber Ballet’s Katie Cooper. Dancers Juliann McAloon as Euridice and Tom Attard-Manché as Orphée were beautifully fluid and interpretive in movement and expression.
Most notably, the orchestra provided a thoughtful read of the score on period instruments. Without a conductor — but led primarily by ABOC artistic director Eric Smith on viola da gamba — the ensemble was bright and limber with a practiced understanding of phrasing. From their position upstage behind the singers, Smith and his ensemble demonstrated a marked knowledge over the genre with special care over the sumptuous textures and lavishly French ornamentations.
It was a perfectly pleasant presentation of Charpentier’s rarely performed work. Presented to a full audience, though, Kurth Hall at the Sammons Center for the Arts proved too small of a venue. Seating was quite crowded.