The ensemble enters in dark tops and blue jeans. Glittery adornments sparkle amidst black t-shirts and blouses. Bare feet press against the hardwood floor of the the Calvary Presbyterian Church. The Milwaukee Opera Theatre and Aperi Animam present a serene vision of love with its production of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo. The tale of Orpheus and Eurydice resonates through the church. Translated into English, the lyrics are projected onto two walls on both sides of the action as the ancient drama makes its trek across the heart of the church.
A sweeping adventure story journeys through the music. Deep romantic feelings are celebrated in wedding ceremony as Apollo’s rays dance through the ornate stained glass of the church. Then there is loss and sadness. Orpheus’ love perishes as the summer light on West Wisconsin Avenue drains from the sky outside the church. The stained glass fades into shadow amidst the distant sound of downtown traffic. During intermission all light is within the church as Orpheus descends into Hades in search of her love. The journey into the afterlife follows the departure of the sun in a clever synthesis between nature and art.
I’m referring to Orpheus as “her.” The libretto addresses the title character as “him.” The traditional Orpheus is a guy. This is perfectly okay and nothing to be ashamed of, but Orpheus is a hell of a lot cooler and more aesthetically engaging as a woman. The production cleverly casts the hero as a gracefully earthbound Jackie Willis. She’s radiantly elegant in the role of the legendary bard. Willis conjures a dreamy, melodic gravity about her in the role as she sings. She’s barefoot in jeans like the rest of the ensemble, but she carries herself with an elegant grace that serves the center of the stage quite well. She glides serenely through both joy and sadness...never needlessly exaggerating either. The music, story and libretto are larger than life. Willis lends the story organic emotional depth. David Guzmán carries a much more divine energy about him in the role of Pluto--the lord of the underworld who is persuaded to consider the plight of Orhpeus.
The tale is told in wide arcs. Montiverdi takes his time in getting to the conflict, which migrates across the stage in breathtakingly slow and steady movements. Debuting in 1607, the music for the opera is an elegantly simple dinner party for violin, harpsichord, sackbut, recorder and more. Most impressive on the stage is a massive lute-like thing called a theorbo…which feels nearly big enough to qualify as a piece of architecture. The epic concerns of gods and humans alike are cast against an unwaveringly minimalist soundscape in the cozily cavernous confines of the church across the street and down the block from Milwaukee’s Central Library.
Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s production of L’Orfeo runs through June 12 at the Calvary Presbyterian Church on 935 W. Wisconsin Ave. For ticket reservations and more, visit Milwaukee Opera Theatre online.