It’s a turn-around jump shot/It’s everybody jump start/It’s every generation throws a hero up the pop charts. 

— Paul Simon

Reform, Hector Berlioz would want us to know, is a restless continuum. Change that once seemed radical has a habit of settling into accepted convention over time, an irresistible target for successive free thinkers to come.

Operatic case in point: Orphée et Eurydice.

Throughout its long, eventful history, Orpheus and Eurydice has been the object of incessant tinkering. Originated in Medici Florence in 1600 by court composers Jacopo Peri and Giulio Caccini, one of the earliest surviving Western music dramas was reset as bolder, more bracing entertainment by popular Venetian stylist Claudio Monteverdi in 1607. Declaring Italian opera seria obsolete over a century and half later, Viennese reformer Christoph Willibald Gluck stripped away layers of elaborate period ornamentation to produce his starkly theatrical Orfeo ed Euridice. Premiered in 1762 before a discriminating Viennese audience, the poignant Greek myth gained fresh momentum, the composer’s startlingly progressive approach to music theatre enthusiastically endorsed by former music pupil Marie Antoinette. A decade later the piece was staged in Paris, librettist Ranieri de’ Calzabigi’s text translated, swirling ballet music added to satisfy French taste. A full century passed. The updates continued to mount, burying Gluck’s once urgent, feverish score under a profusion of extraneous add-ons. By the late 1850s, composer Hector Berlioz had heard enough. With a crisp, revised arrangement, a fresh Orphée et Eurydice was reborn.

And still Gluck’s masterpiece grows.

Focusing on both tradition and import, stage director Joel Ivany and music director Topher Mokrzewski, principal architects of Toronto’s enterprising Against the Grain Theatre, have essentially zeroed the clock on operatic history, setting the stage for an all new vision of Gluck’s churning classic. Orphée+, the pair’s driving, electro-digital rendering, premiered late last week at the intimate 500-seat Fleck Dance Theatre, dazzled, creating an all new milieu for the work.

Viewed in its seething mid-18th century incarnation, Gluck’s pithy sensation is a prime example of mythology made manifest, the feared and the unknowable driving drama to excruciating extremes. An air of hallucination overhangs the action, entirely engulfing it at times. Opéra-ballet of the mind. Psychology is revealed in story witnessed in a state of waking dream.

Incapacitated by the sudden death of his wife, the sublimely beautiful Eurydice, Orphée, a musician gifted with miraculous skill, is permitted by the goddess Amour to spirit his precious soulmate from Hades. There is, however, one condition. He must not look at her before the two return to the realm of the living. Misinterpreting Orphée’s agonizing inability to gaze into her eyes when the pair ultimately reunites, Eurydice refuses to depart from the Underworld, resolved that death is preferable to lack of love. Unable to bear the strain of infernal separation any longer, Orphée tearfully turns to embrace her. Eurydice instantly dies anew.

The twin themes of loss and bereavement assume archetypal force here, a vivid expression of human horror rendered simultaneously universal and intimate. Conjuring a wealth of extraordinarily evocative imagery, director Ivany, in collaboration with video projection designer S. Katy Tucker, achieves a stunning degree of visual equivalency. A hellish flaming inferno. An all-seeing terrified spying eyeball. Tranquil clouds floating above gentle Elysian Fields. Drama turned to virtual dream, haunting and haunted, Orphée+ seared the imagination.

Gathering the opening night audience’s rapt silence around him, 11-player orchestra poised, Against the Grain’s tirelessly perceptive Maestro Mokrzewski paused before cueing his first upbeat. A burst of sound designer John Gzowski’s elemental white noise — the hiss of eternity — filled the stillness. Orphée’s solo violin, entrancingly played by the singer himself, wept centre stage. Mokrzewski signaled. Gluck’s plaintive dirge, Ah! Dans ce bois tranquille et sombre, flooded the darkness. A virtual chorus, a gallery of pre-recorded vocalists glimpsed as eerie streams of mourners unscrolled down ersatz trees. The moment proved emblematic, Mokrzewski’s conducting as sensitive as it was assertive from curtain to curtain; strings and woodwinds accented by electric guitar and keyboard, startling in their bravado, brash, boldly coloured. The pulsing hard rock continuo astonished, a taut live 4-voice offstage chorus adding further notes of exclamation to the proceedings.

The use of eroticism to charge atmosphere is far from uncommon in French Baroque opera. Orphée et Eurydice may not be typical of the genre in many ways, but music and impulse are certainly ripe with sensuality and heat, a fact Ivany and company were quick to point out, pushing considerably beyond Gluck’s subtextual boundaries.

Unleashing a flamboyant semi-clad troupe of high-heeled, buckle-shoed dancers drawn from New York City’s irreverent Company XIV, Brooklyn-based choreographer Austin McCormick filled the stage with bodies, Furies and Blessed Spirits romping with unapologetic abandon, sly, wicked, outrageously hedonistic. Hades, it seems, is only hell for those who arrive overdressed.

Appearing as Orphée, countertenor Siman Chung turned in a performance of immense beauty and staggering emotional rigour, a triumphant tour de force of expression, soaring and untrammeled. The role, adapted by Berlioz from alto castrato to haut-contre, a supremely high, expressly French tenor voice type, demands the utmost care, poignant and impassioned in equal measure, its inhabitant confronted by a virtual catalogue of song — recitative, both accompanied and secco; aria, aria di capo, arioso, arietta. Chung was all-conquering, his inexpressibly tender rendering of Gluck’s great, towering plaint, J’ai perdu mon Eurydice sung with exquisite directness, partnered with glowing strings, tugging at our hearts.

Singing Eurydice, soprano Mireille Asselin gifted an already intensely vital production with an added measure of vibrancy, her bright, sparkling instrument resonantly attuned to Gluck’s flawless, crystalline score. Cet asile aimable et tranquille/Par le bonheur est habité, Eurydice exalts, surrendering body and soul to the seductive pleasures of Elysium. Partnered by chorus and dancers, Asselin utterly charmed.

In unquestionably the most attention-commanding stage turn of the evening, mezzo-soprano Marcy Richardson elicited audible gasps, singing, impossibly and seemingly unperturbed, as a high-flying, inverted, trapeze-born Amour. Her airborne entrance, a particularly high risk deus ex machina summoning Orpheus to action, Si les doux accents de ta lyre, could not have been more daring. Or vocally divine.

Part chamber opera, part cabaret, Orphée+ represents something of a departure for AtG. Production is very much foreground here, staging lavish and dense. But the sense of shared danger, the risks, the thrills — the artistic DNA that distinguishes this perpetually courageous band of musical adventurers is still very much present. A unique, gripping experience.

Orphée+ is a co-production of Against the Grain Theatre, Opera Columbus and Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. Opens Banff Centre, July 12.

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Above: Darryl Block Photography. Siman Chung as Orphée, Mireille Asselin as Eurydice