Pooled talents for an unusual 'Orpheus'

Times Staff Writer

Ricky Ian Gordon is one of American opera's great new hopes.

His "Grapes of Wrath," which premiered last year at Minnesota Opera under the direction of Los Angeles' own Grant Gershon, has already been declared a classic. Opera America, in fact, called it "the great American opera," blissfully forgetting Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" as well as many other contenders fiercely debated on opera blogs.

Still, Gordon now has a commission from the mighty Metropolitan Opera, whose track record in this regard hasn't been exactly stellar, and another from Minnesota Opera. His songs have been sung by Audra McDonald and Dawn Upshaw, among others.

Sunday, Long Beach Opera premiered an expanded production of Gordon's sincere if sentimental song cycle for clarinet, soprano and piano, "Orpheus & Euridice," commissioned by twice Grammy-nominated clarinetist Todd Palmer.

The work first surfaced in a shorter, tryout version at New York's Cooper Union in 2001. It was expanded to its current 70-minute length in 2005 for the American Songbook and New Visions series at New York's Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, where it was performed by Palmer, Metropolitan Opera soprano Elizabeth Futral and the Doug Varone Dancers.

Going where few opera companies dare to tread, Long Beach Opera mounted its version at -- or rather in -- the Belmont Plaza Olympic Pool in Long Beach. Palmer and Futral reprised their roles. Gordon, at company director Andreas Mitisek's request, rescored the work for strings and piano.

Mitisek doubled Palmer (who represents Orpheus) and Futral with a mute acting couple, a hard-working Dylan Kenin as Orpheus 2 and Lauren Mace as Euridice 2. He also added a quartet of silent Bunraku-style players.

The second pair of lovers solved one problem of the Lincoln Center production, namely the awkwardness of having Futral, who serves as both Euridice and the narrator, die and then return to tell the rest of the story. But it introduced another in dividing focus between her and Palmer and the two actors.

Still, Mitisek used the pool effectively. Palmer and Futral or their surrogates glided cautiously, sometimes magically, hither and thither across the water in a small boat. Mace fell poignantly backward into the water at Euridice's final demise. Mirrored in its surface were Alan E. Muraoka's white Grecian-style statues, which effectively conjured up the realm of the dead.

Everyone was amplified. Palmer played his marathon role expertly. Futral sang beautifully. Fortunately, Gordon's text was projected on a screen because Futral's words were swallowed up by the pool's acoustic.

While no one could doubt their commitment to the project, the big obstacle for at least one viewer was the extreme simplicity, the banality of Gordon's repetitive score, which seldom plumbed the emotional depths demanded by such a dramatic theme of love found and irrevocably lost. Many others appeared to like it, however.

The expanded accompaniment, which often sounded like Copland, was provided by pianist Michelle Schumann, the Denali Quartet (violinists Kevin Kumar and Joel Pargman, violist Alma Fernandez and cellist Timothy Loo), and bass Nick Recuber.

chris.pasles@latimes.com

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'Orpheus & Euridice'

Where: Long Beach Opera at Belmont Plaza Olympic Pool, 4000 Olympic Plaza, Long Beach

When: 8 tonight

Price: $45 to $95

Contact: (562) 432-5934 or www .longbeachopera.org

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