In 1957 Tennessee Williams came up with his own take on the Orpheus myth, a deep-south gothic tale aptly titled Orpheus Descending. Now the play–which inspired a semisuccessful screen version, The Fugitive Kind, starring Marlon Brando and Anna Magnani–has been turned into a two-act opera by Bruce Saylor, Lyric Opera’s composer in residence. Saylor first saw the play in its 1989 Broadway revival, with Vanessa Redgrave and Kevin Anderson as the leads, and immediately recognized the operatic potential in its flamboyant gestures and sultry poetry of doom. Collaborating with J.D. McClatchy (a veteran librettist and editor of the Yale Review), he stayed largely faithful to the play’s allegorical tone, though he streamlined its plot, in which a reformed hustler, Val Xavier (savior?), wanders into a small town rife with corruption and decadence–hell on earth–and unwittingly wreaks havoc by succumbing to the charms of Lady Torrance, an older woman with a woeful past and a bedridden husband. A musical eclectic and a master songwriter, Saylor has come up with a modern tonal style that allows him to fit the music around Williams’s hypnotic cadences so that the focus is on the symbolic and emotional context. A first-rate creative team has been recruited for this production from the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists. The staging is by Rhoda Levine, a provocative director and choreographer of modern operas who also teaches at Northwestern; the set and costume design is by Marie Anne Chiment; and the lighting is by Christine Solger. Heading the youthful cast are baritone Victor Benedetti (Val), soprano Juliana Rambaldi (Lady), mezzo-soprano Terese Fedea (as Carol Cutrere, who has the hots for Val), and bass-baritone Stephen Morscheck (Jabe Torrance). Conducting these premiere performances is Stewart Robertson, the much- heralded music director of the Santa Fe Symphony and the Glimmerglass Opera. Friday and Saturday, 7:30 PM, Cahn Auditorium, Northwestern University, 600 Emerson, Evanston; 332-2244 or 708-491-5441.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Rest.