Opera La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers

Baroque opera
“La descente d’Orphée aux enfers”, Charpentier, 1686
Haymarket Opera Company, Chicago, IL, USA – February 2012

Stage director : Ellen Hargis
Musical director : Craig Trompeter
Choreographer : Carlos Fittante
Costume designer and maker : Meriem Bahri
Set designer : David Mayernik
Light designer : Eric Peterson
Photographers : Wendy Benner – Benjamin Brachi

Meriem Bahri's ornate period costumes and set designer David Mayernik's painted revolving panels mirrored the authentic sounds emanating from Trompeter's "pit" band."

John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune, November 25, 2012

In this unfinished opera, there are two different worlds: the earthly world and the realm of shades. Only the hero Orpheus and his bride Eurydice appear in both.

Act I relates the preparation of Eurydice and Orpheus’s wedding. In this joyous moment, the nymphs and shepherds are clothed in bright blue and green as an appealing mirror of the shepherd’s chorus. Closer to the bride, her nurse and Daphne are slightly different from the others, with a touch of purple. Apollo, with his mask representing the sun and his golden cape, was a role often played by Louis XIV himself. Orpheus, Apollo’s son, also wears gold while his bride Eurydice’s light-silver corset and white skirt symbolizes the moon. Like the sun and the moon, the two lovers will twirl and dance together but are not united.

Act II, which takes place in Underworld, is hellish. Visually, the costumes tend to represent Orpheus’s distress: between flames and burns, suffering and torture. Orpheus meets the phantasmagoric-looking creatures, the Furies, as well as Pluto and Proserpina, king and queen of this nightmarish world. He also charms the three condemned criminals: Tityus, tortured by vultures who feed on his liver, Ixion, bound to a burning solar wheel for eternity and Tantalus, for whom fruits and water always eluded his grasps before he could eat or drink.

For historical authenticity, I consulted 17th century images, specifically designs for operas played at the court of Louis XIV. These precious drawings inform us how they used to represent mythological Greek characters (wearing drapes or capes) and which accoutrements were featured (snaky shapes for Furies’ masks, laurel wreath for Orpheus, lyre for Apollo etc.). The performers wear stylistic makeup and wigs based on 17th century practices.