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Go to Hell

A Danish company's take on the Orpheus legend is so much smoke and shimmers.

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Step right up: Copenhagen's Hotel Pro Forma performing Operation: Orfeo at BAM.  

Hotel Pro Forma, we are told, is a theater company from Denmark that boldly ventures into new territories: between art and nonart, theater and non-theater, physical and metaphysical expression as it moves across the genres of theater, opera, visual arts, and music. If that sounds like too big a leap for timid souls, what better way to win them over than with a new treatment of the Orpheus legend, which through the centuries has inspired so many pioneering spirits in music theater. Conceived by Hotel Pro Forma's co-founder, Kirsten Dehlholm, Operation: Orfeo made its statement recently at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's 1999 Next Wave Festival. The theatrical goods were more or less mixed and delivered as advertised, but the results turned out to be somewhat less than thrilling.

Lasting about 80 minutes, the piece is divided into three parts, each representing a stage in Orpheus's journey to recover his dead wife: his descent to Hades, his return to Earth, and the fatal glance that leads to the second loss of Eurydice. None of this is actually depicted, only suggested by a narrator, a dancer who could be Orpheus or Eurydice, and twelve choristers dressed in dark robes and paper crowns. They are all grouped on a huge white staircase framed in black, giving the scenic space the flat effect of a two-dimensional canvas painting. The musical score, sung a cappella by an onstage chorus, combines bits of John Cage's Hymns and Variations, composed in 1979, with new music by Bo Holten in a lush neo-Renaissance style; at one point the final aria from Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice makes a brief, jarring appearance. The florid poetic text, by Ib Michael, no doubt adds an important verbal element, but only for those who understand Danish.

Apparently Operation: Orfeo is considered something of a modern classic back home in Copenhagen, but in Brooklyn it came off as little more than a pretentious high-school pageant. The chorus just looked silly in their gowns and crowns -- no less so when they brought out party favors and began to blow up toy balloons. None of the self-consciously contrived visual images projected much dramatic power, and the final apotheosis -- clouds of smoke billowing out into the auditorium and illuminated by lasers -- was pure kitsch. Holton's New Age music has a cloying sweetness that cancels out the spicy tang of Cage's choruses, although the Musica Ficta vocal ensemble sang everything with awesome virtuosity. Perhaps Hotel Pro Forma brought the wrong piece to bam. Also in the company's repertory is a work that sounds more promising: Monkey Business Class, described as a musical celebration of paper money before it disappears permanently from the world.


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