Lincoln Center has gone for something daring in its New Visions program, opening its American Songbook season with the world premiere of a music-dance-theater hybrid that only fitfully realizes its bold ambitions. Working from a haunting song cycle for soprano, clarinet and piano that Ricky Ian Gordon composed to the Orpheus and Euridice myth, choreographer Doug Varone enlists the musicians as dancers and assigns them performance chores outside their skills. These troupers are game, but the strain is palpable, too often distracting from the very real beauty of the piece.
Cold, icy white is a far more appropriate color for signifying death than the comforting oblivion of earthy blackness. So Allen Moyer’s white-on-white set — contained behind a gauzy white scrim and holding no more than a white piano on a movable platform and a set of white chairs that at one point flies into the rafters — is a properly funereal setting for this stripped-down, modernized treatment of the mournful myth about true lovers separated by early death.
We are told in a program note that Gordon (“My Life With Albertine”) wrote the achingly romantic libretto and heart-clawing dissonant score as a memorial to his longtime partner, Michael Grossi, who died of AIDS in 1996. Indeed, the poetry in this 13-part song cycle fairly bleeds with the pain of watching one’s beloved waste away and die.
“Orpheus tried to wake her/Playing dizzyingly high/Like bird-call/But it only made her cry,” Gordon writes of the musician whose songs could make the gods weep but could not restore his lover.
A young, robust Elizabeth Futral (who found fame in the 1994 New York City Opera production of “Lakme”) doubles as Euridice and the story’s narrator. She’s a real looker, with creamy skin and wild black hair, and she moves with sufficient grace when pressed into service as a dancer. But it’s the voice that smites — the rich, sensual coloratura sound that gives living presence to the doomed Euridice. Even if she were standing on her head, instead of just being steered around the stage by a corps of dancers, that voice would kill us.
As her Orpheus, clarinetist Todd Palmer has a much tougher time of it. He looks snazzy in the leather jacket that costumer Jane Greenwood has provided in a life-affirming shade of youth-and-spring green. And he is by no means stingy of expression or clumsy on his feet.
But if his dance movements are not awkward, neither are they natural to a musician whose soul is pouring out through his instrument. The clarity of Palmer’s tones honors the raw pain of the lyrics, and he isn’t afraid to make Gordon’s flesh-stripping high notes scream out loud. What he doesn’t need is the distraction of having to watch his bare feet when he descends into hell to retrieve Euridice — or remember to look at his beloved from time to time.
At least Melvin Chen is left in peace to play his piano.
For their part, the dancers are too busy being … well, busy, to contribute anything extraordinary to the piece. When they are not moving the piano or playing tugboats to the principals, their movements are quick and graceful but nothing to write home about.