Bel Cantanti, with Roots in Northern Virginia, Carries on with “Orpheus and Eurydice” Opera

photoPhoto credit: Bel Cantanti

Some sixteen years ago in Northern Virginia, a very unusual opera company was founded.  Dr. Katerina Souvorova, a vocal coach at the Music Department of George Mason University in Fairfax, started up the Bel Cantanti Opera Company.  In December 2003, Bel Cantanti held its first fully–staged opera production, Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” at St. James Episcopal Church in Leesburg.

What makes Bel Cantanti unique?  It is, first of all, opera performed outside of the traditional Opera House and re-imagined in an intimate setting, usually in a  small theatre or church.  Instead of a large concert orchestra, an ensemble of seven or so musicians is conducted and accompanied on two keyboards by the indefatigable Dr. Souvorova.  Talented up-and-coming opera singers are selected, performing in beautiful costumes but with reduced scenery or props, often suggested by slide images.  

This low-budget and yet high-quality way of presenting opera has several advantages, including much lower-priced tickets than, say, for the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center.  An even greater advantage is this approach expands offerings outside of the traditional opera repertoire.  While Bel Cantanti does perform popular opera fare such as (most recently) “The Marriage of Figaro,” the company also performs lesser-known productions, inclduing the Austrian operetta “Beautiful Galatea” by von Suppe and many operas from Dr. Souvorova’s native land of Russia, such as the up-coming “Tsar’s Bride” by Rimsky-Korsakov.

Bel Cantanti has another important mission, which  Dr. Souvorova explains: “I have seen first hand working at American universities that after graduating, many students – singers with very beautiful voices – don’t have anywhere to go. If they are lucky, they may win a big competition or get into the chorus of the Washington National Opera.  Yet most teach privately, work in the chorus of a church, or simply choose a day job which has nothing to do with performing. I know too many real estate agents and office workers with Masters and even Doctoral degrees in music who simply don’t have a chance to perform anymore.” Bel Cantanti gives these talented and classically trained singers that opportunity, while serving as a springboard for vocal artists to hone their skills and prepare for auditions which land them at the Met and other major opera houses in the US.

Virginia opera lovers will be gladdened to know that while Bel Cantanti is no longer a presence in northern Virginia, it is very much alive and well in Maryland, currently performing “Orfeo ed Euridice”  by the German composer  Christoph Willibald Gluck.   The tale of “Orpheus and Eurydice” from classical mythology has received various treatments over the centuries. The Middle English poem “Sir Orfeo ,” for example, translated in one version by J.R.R. Tolkien, presents the story in terms of the knights and ladies of the chivalric era.  A famous twentieth-century version of the myth places it during “Carnaval” time in Rio de Janeiro in the Brazilian film “Black Orpheus,” with the samba and bossa nova rhythms and songs of the composer Antonio Carlos Jobim. German composer Gluck presented his take on the story in the eighteenth-century, a very sentimental age, and thus tacks on a happy end to this tragedy!  In language that Gluck would have understood, it was the Zeitgeist.

Orpheus was a poet, musician, and reputedly the world’s greatest singer.  His bride, Eurydice, was bitten by a viper and died.  This back-story is all conveyed by video during the overture.  Orpheus complains of “fierce Pluto,” Lord of the Underworld, who has taken Eurydice to become nothing more than a “mournful shade.”  “I want her back from you, tyrannous gods! ” Orpheus laments. In a character added by Gluck for his opera, the goddess Amore – love – comes to Orpheus and advises that with his marvelous singing he “placate the Furies and bring back the beloved Eurydice.” This stratagem is successful and allows Orpheus to pass to the Underworld and return Eurydice to the world of the living.  Yet he will lose her again forever, Orpheus is told, if he turns back and looks upon her while leading her out of Hades.

One of this production’s biggest virtues is its abstract presentation of the story, but this means it is incumbent upon the viewer to study the story and its background first. Though Gluck was German, the opera is in Italian with English surtitles. Yet the music swings back-and-forth between melodic, pensive German strains and lovely Italian-language areas sung in turns beautifully and powerfully by Francesca Aguado as Orfeo, Chelsea Lehnea as Eurydice, and Robin Steitz as Amore.  Dancers of the Olney Ballet Theater, in white robes and masks, represent variously Furies and statues. A chorus, recorded and unseen in the production available at press time, represents the Voices of the Furies. The eight-piece orchestra – five strings, oboe, French horn, and keyboard cembalo – gives an admirable musical performance, bringing out the diverse German and Italian characteristics of Gluck’s music. On stage, a large fabric separates the real world of the living from Hades, the underworld of the dead, with occasional openings for characters to pass from one to the other.    

Perhaps the most troubling portion of Gluck’s opera is his alteration of the inexorable building of tragedy by introducing a sudden “happy ending,” in which Amore brings back Eurydice to Orpheus, even after he loses her a second time.  General and Artistic Director Souvorova has revised this slightly to imply that much of this is in Orpheus’ imagination and that Eurydice will live on, but in his heart. All eras and audiences of the “Orpheus and Eurydice” story would hope this final sentiment to be true!

Those wishing to experience this seldom-performed opera by the unique Bel Cantanti Opera Company must do soon, for there are only three performances at the Silver Spring Black Box Theater on April 12, April 13, and April 14. Please visit the website http://www.belcantanti.com for more details.

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About the Author

Mark Dreisonstok
Mark Dreisonstok is a professor, editor, writer, and translator in the Washington, D.C., area. He holds a PhD from Georgetown University and an M.A. from the University of Freiburg, Germany.