Much of the intense charm of Marc-Antoine Charpentier's La descente d'Orphée aux enfers (Opheus's Descent into Hell)--receiving an intensely charming Gotham Chamber Opera production at St. Peter's Chapel in lower Manhattan for two more performances--derives from its origins. It was written for some of the singers and musicians with whom the 17th-century benefactress Marie de Lorraine, known as Mademoiselle de Guise, liked surrounding herself.
In other words, the two-act chamber piece was intended for a salon where artists who worked together in other capacities could appear. That goes a long way to explaining the appealing intimacy inherent in the two-act adaptation of the disturbing Greek myth about the bereaved lad (Daniel Curran here) who went into the fiery nether regions to bring back his deceased bride, Euridice (Jamilyn Manning-White). She, poor thing, died on their wedding day after stepping on a snake.
Leave it to conductor/artistic director Neal Goren to adhere to Charpentier's requiring 10 singers and eight musicians as the proper way to offer what is as soothing, while utterly involving, a Baroque score as anyone might wish. Under his baton, the two acts are entirely different in tone--act one is an idyll unfortunately overturned, act two switches to hellfire, but the sounds filling a space where the acoustics couldn't be better remain as smooth as cream poured over strawberries.
Directed by Andrew Eggert, the opera is a series of lovely images during the first half, and less so during the second when red flames are projected on the chapel's white walls. When Euridice has succumbed, Eggert has her carried out through the center aisle. When Orpheus has persuaded Pluton (Jeffrey Beruan) to allow his beloved to leave hell as long as he doesn't look at her until they've departed, Eggert has the pair climb a spiral staircase and proceed slowly across a walkway.
It's a suspenseful trip, because there's no doubt Orpheus will break his promise. That's how the story goes, folks. (Does anyone ever watch a treatment of the sad tale without hoping that just this once Orpheus won't turn around?) The question is: At what point will Orpheus give in? Eggert sees that it occurs at precisely the right stage and musical moment--and with precisely the right nuanced gestures.
Incidentally, when spotting three grimy men (John Brancy, Gerard Michael D'Emilio, Cullen Gandy) enduring the tortures of the damned, Orpheus tells them they don't begin to know the depths of true suffering. The outburst is the sole instance of Charpentier's forgetting himself. Well, perhaps another is the consistently dulcet warbling that goes on in Hell, of all places.
The Descente cast members--which also include Yungee Rhie, Marguerite Krull, Mary Ferminear, and Melissa Attebury--sing impeccably when soloing. When singing together, the ensemble could pass for an angel chorus, particularly in this setting.
A rumor floating around among opera circles in these post-New York City Opera days is that the Metropolitan Opera's Peter Gelb and Goren have been talking. The rumor doesn't say if they're mooting a collaboration. If so, it may be that Goren could bring more to Gelb than Gelb could bring to Goren.
What Goren does extremely well are the kind of small-scale productions that could easily get lost at the Met, a house already too big for many of the operas displayed in it. Both impresarios know this. So perhaps they're cooking up something along other, more feasible lines. It might be nice if they are.