An ‘Orpheus’ with spirit

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With Kim Pensinger Witman at the helm, the Wolf Trap Opera Company has continued to evolve in interesting directions, including an increased affinity for staging rarely performed baroque operas of surpassing loveliness.

Such an occasion is the company’s current production of Georg Philipp Telemann’s little-known opera, “Orpheus” (subtitled “The Marvelous Constancy of Love”), continuing through Sunday with weekend performances at the Barns at Wolf Trap.

Mythology fans, of course, are aware of the ancient Greek legend of Orpheus and its variants. A sublime musician, Orpheus either invented the lyre or brought it to perfection. He eventually married Eurydice yet lost her when she was fatally bitten by a poisonous snake. But the intrepid musician followed her spirit to Hades, where he prevails upon Pluto, god of the underworld, to release her spirit to dwell in happiness on the Earth. Orpheus’ wish is granted, but he’s forbidden to look upon Eurydice’s face until they both have departed the underworld.

Naturally, Orpheus can’t resist a quick peek, and the deal is off. His life back on the surface becomes a predictable mess, and he’s eventually extinguished one way or the other depending on which legend you read.

Telemann (1681-1767) first mounted his operatic version of the story on stage in 1736. The score was eventually lost, only to be rediscovered in 1978, leading to performances in the 1990s. It’s a delight to have it back.

The music is astonishingly beautiful, although the opera’s libretto is something of a mess. Borrowed from earlier sources, it’s mostly German, with dollops of French and Italian dropped in here and there at emotional climaxes. It also takes considerable liberties with the legend, elevating the minor character of Orasia, the widowed Queen of Thrace, to a starring role as the villainess responsible for orchestrating Eurydice’s snaky encounter as well as Orpheus’ gruesome murder by tipsy gender feminists.

Wolf Trap is one of several summer companies that serve as the final proving grounds for outstanding young opera talents, and the cast of “Orpheus” is a case in point. Clocking in at over three hours, this is a challenging score, enough to tax even veteran singers. But down to the most minor role, the singing of this year’s company is excellent nearly all of the time.

During Sunday’s performance, South African soprano Bronwen Forbay was a standout in the strenuous role of Orasia. She displayed a firm, amazingly mature grasp of baroque ornamentation, aided by excellent diction, fine vocal support and an uncanny sense of rhythm. A couple of Telemann’s cruel high notes presented issues, but Miss Forbay escaped from them quickly enough to avoid lasting damage. Each year at Wolf Trap, there are one or two young talents that bear watching. Miss Forbay is surely one of them in 2006.

Other cast standouts were baritone Alexander Tall — who was a fine Orpheus — and bass Matt Boehler, an assured and imposing Pluto in Act II. Irish mezzo Fiona Murphy was winning in the smaller role of the unfortunate Eurydice, and tenor Jeremy Little was poised and assured as Orpheus’ friend Eurimedes.

Designer Martin T. Lopez’s sets were creative and highly evocative for so small a space. Unfortunately, his costuming — primarily dinner jackets for the men and pop-tart miniskirts for the women — left something to be desired (although his “Living Dead” zombies in Act II were pretty convincing). The period baroque ensemble under the baton of Guido Rumstadt played consistently and well, giving the entire performance a polished, professional feel.

***1/2

WHO: The Wolf Trap Opera Company

WHAT: “Orpheus,” by Georg Philipp Telemann

WHERE: The Barns at Wolf Trap, Vienna

WHEN: Friday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.

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