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Intensely dramatic ‘Orpheus and Eurydice’ is an unusually engaging season opener for Minnesota Opera

Legend has it that after seeing a performance of Gluck’s “Orphee,” the writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau left the Paris Opera with tears streaming down his face.

No one leaving the Ordway Center Saturday night, having seen the same opera in its original version of 1762, “Orpheus and Eurydice,” in a new production by Minnesota Opera, appeared to be having quite as visceral a reaction as did Rousseau who, admittedly, enjoyed a good cry more than most people. This attractive new production, which kicked off the company’s 48th season, offered a great deal, nonetheless.

It boasts, for one thing, the compelling presence onstage of David Daniels, who by now is surely the world’s most revered countertenor in a role that has become for him a trademark. If it could be said that the English mezzo Janet Baker owned the role of Orpheus in the 1960s and ‘70s, then that honor for the past decade has been held by Daniels, who will return to the Met later this season to sing the part in a production that, at least when first seen, had him costumed like a rock star, playing a guitar with a sequined shoulder strap.

His costume here was more attuned to the 18th century, and the performance was both intensely dramatic and vocally accomplished. Where many countertenors emit a steely sound that can be off-putting, Daniels makes his wide-ranging, agile, warm-colored voice seem natural. The character’s grief over the death of his beloved Eurydice in the opening scene came across with touching poignancy Saturday night as did his elation on her recovery. Near the end, his delivery of Orpheus’ great lament, “Che faro senza Eurydice?” seemed the musical embodiment of the noble simplicity that was always Gluck’s goal.

With early-music expert Harry Bicket leading the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in a sensitive and incisive performance in the pit, the production — staged by the English director Lee Blakeley with intriguing sets and costumes by Adrian Linford — offers a thoughtful retelling of the timeless tale of art’s power to overcome death. Putting the action in an 18th-century court theater, with Orpheus wandering backstage in search of Eurydice or some more complete version of himself, Blakeley suggests, moreover, an ambiguous, uneasy relationship between illusion and reality that we don’t usually encounter in this work.

He suggests, too, in one of the production’s several evocative images — chorus members slowly dropping from the ceiling into the afterworld, the supposedly blissful Elysian Fields, and forced to wear masks — that life after death is not so serene as myth and religion promise. And he solves the problem that attends most productions of “Orpheus”: what to do with those boring dances at the end. Using the dancers of the excellent Zenon Dance Company and the choreography of Arthur Pita, Blakeley evokes the old theatrical-operatic tradition of the afterpiece, which satirizes the story we’ve just seen.Here it’s funny and yet disturbing. Eurydice, sung so exquisitely in this production by Susanna Phillips, watches the dance and is herself disturbed by it, as are we in the audience.

And here are a few more credits in what turned out to be an unusually engaging season opener: Angela Mortellaro’s sprightly, deftly sung Amore and the immaculate, full-bodied singing of the chorus.

“Orpheus and Eurydice” runs through Oct. 3 at the Ordway Center, 345 Washington St., St. Paul. Tickets: $20-$200. 612-333-6669.

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