Orfeo ed Euridice (Vienna version, 1762) at the Met

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Gluck, Orfeo, Act I: Stephanie Blythe as Orfeo, Chorus and Dancers, photo Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Gluck, Orfeo, Act I: Stephanie Blythe as Orfeo, Chorus and Dancers, photo Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Orfeo ed Euridice (Vienna version, 1762)
Music by C. W. Gluck (1714-1787)
Libretto by Ranieri de’ Calzabigi
Metropolitan Opera
January 24, 2009

Orfeo – Stephanie Blythe
Euridice – Danielle de Niese
Amore – Heidi Grant Murphy

Joshua Greene – Harpsichord
Conductor – James Levine

Production – Mark Morris
Set Designer – Allen Moyer
Costume Designer – Isaac Mizrahi
Lighting Designer – James F. Ingalls
Choreographer – Mark Morris

This production first appeared in May of 2007 with the American countertenor David Daniels singing the part of Orpheus (which was originally sung by a castrato alto), consistent with the choice of Gluck’s original 1762 version by James Levine and Mark Morris. They also decided to exclude any interpolations from the 1774 Paris version, like the popular “Dance of the Furies.” In this year’s revivalthe mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe sang Orpheus, compromising “authenticity” to take advantage of what this versatile Met regular could bring to the role. (Since castrati are no longer available today, authenticity to Viennese operatic conventions of the 1760’s can be only relative. The mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux, who recently sang some castrato repertoire at Carnegie Hall—and whose 2003 Orpheus at the LA Opera has been warmly praised—has possible gone farther than anyone in recreating their style and spirit.) However, whatever purism there may be in this production lies mainly in the concentration and flow of the 1762 score. Maestro Levine, of course, appreciates this keenly and makes the most of it. What’s more, his affection for its dramaturgical honesty and his delight the clean lines of its scoring were always apparent. This was Levine at his best, and the Met Orchestra played with exceptional precision and agility.

I’ll say more about the production later; here it suffices to point out that the ever-present chorus are arrayed in amphitheater-like bleachers which face the audience through most of the production, allowing them little mobility, except to stand, to sit, or to gesture in place, but excellent projection. The Met chorus under Donald Palumbo’s direction sang on their usual superb level, perhaps beyond it, since they play so great a role in this opera. Their staticplacement bore fruit in the excellent balance between the chorus , the orchestra, and Ms. Blythe’s capacious mezzo. These more powerful elements played so well together, that Heidi Grant Murphy’s small, lighter voice, further hampered by what I assume to be the directorially imposed necessity of affecting a bright, puerile tone for the part of Amor, did not always penetrate the ensemble. Apart from challenging the audience with an irritatingly cute faux naiveté, this did not show Ms. Murphy’s voice at its best. Her phrasing was well-measured, however, and occasionally she dropped her boyish piping and sounded more like herself, to my momentary relief. The Australian soprano Danielle de Niese, who has sung smaller roles at the Met since 1998, sang Eurydice with a consistently integrated voice which, silk over velvet, was both bright and rich all the way through her range. In her white gown this striking beauty projected intense youthful femininity, whatever her status between death and life. In contrast to Orpheus’ grave delivery, her Eurydice seemed to occupy a different operatic world, one Gluck shared with his approximate contemporaries, Hasse and Haydn.

Stephanie Blythe used her considerable corporeal and vocal dimensions to create an Orpheus which was riveting in its superhuman composure and willful concentration. In ancient tradition Orpheus is in fact a demigod, usually the son of the Muse Calliope and a mortal, but in modern treatments, his humanity tends to be in the foreground, as in Striggio’s libretto for Monteverdi and Calzabigi’s for Gluck. (The story turns on a human failing, doesn’t it, when Orpheus fails to uphold the stricture against looking at Eurydice until they reach the human world?) Ms. Blythe cuts a truly heroic figure that sets her apart from the common humanity onstage. This can be almost jarring at times, as in her scenes with her throughly human and feminine Eurydice. Blythe’s actions, like her musical phrasing are deliberate, as if to reinforce the lingering artificiality of Gluck’s legendary masterpiece of naturalness in operatic dramaturgy, but it is consistent and convincing as well. Her monumental, voice, which recalls polished porphyry, can carry long, arching phrases with supreme dignity, which she articulates in a masterful way. Blythe makes grand classical architecture of Orpheus’ song, nothing like the simple strains of primitive Thrace. Orpheus is on stage almost constantly, reverting characteristically to monologue, much of which is familiar to opera-goers, but we all look forward to the great aria, Che faro senz’ Euridice. Maestro Levine, on the whole disinclined to let Gluck’s music drag, as was the custom in France a couple of generations ago, was also intent on keeping the aria moving, as was Ms. Blythe. The result was a compact, elegantly phrased rendition, which avoided the impression of a set piece. Blythe’s voice lacks the warmth of a Ferrier or Baker; she projects, rather, the restrained grief of a being who transcends humanity through innate musical powers. Its expressivity was architectonic in nature, rather than a classically chastened outpouring of the heart.

Unfortunately, in Mark Morris’ production, designed by Allen Moyer, and costumed by Isaac Mizrahi, Orpheus often seems to have gotten lost (a fatal error for any mortal bent on plumbing Hades and coming back) perhaps somewhere between Barnes and Noble and P. J. Clarke’s. In spite ofa certain effort to respect the the solemnity and simplicity of Gluck and Calzabigi’s work, the production is bulging with irrelevant, precious gimmicks which, I thought, were not only distracting, but perversely counter-intuitive. While the the dancers wore contemporary or mildly retro streetwear and looked as if they were modeling one of Mizrahi’s collections, the chorus appeared in an array of period costumes, which, one realizes, denote a particular historical personage. This particular bit of cleverness invites the members of the audience play a guessing game with themselves about the identity of the characters. Probably the more musical among us try to resist it, but eventually we cave in to some degree. Everything we read, see, or hear in the popular media inspires us to hold modern-day attention spans in contempt, but, in one of the briefest, most concise operas in the repertory this is surely unnecessary—one more depressing example of the mentality of contemporary, artists, playwrights, novelists, composers, etc., etc., who work as if they were deadly afraid that their audience would get bored if they were left undistracted or unentertained for more than a second or two. The cynicism of this attitude is even more contemptible than the malady it seeks to address. In any case, I was not inspired by this dialectic of trendy, everyday drabness, reflected by the mouse grey tonality of the dancer’s costumes and the darkling Disneyland vision of history on the bleachers.

Gluck, Orfeo, Act I: Chorus and Dancers, photo Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Gluck, Orfeo, Act I: Chorus and Dancers, photo Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

The sharp, off-beat movements of the dancers in the earlier scenes of mourning were equally annoying. They were typical gestures of intense grief, but they were so self-aware and smugly cool, that they flouted the theatrical values they were intended to support. There was an element of seriousness in the production, but it was hard to tell whether it was on the inside or on the outside. Everything we saw on stage was about style, or perhaps more “branding” rather than style, so you will forgive me if I draw the simpler conclusion. Mark Morris, some of whose work I enjoy, has a reputation for his understanding of music, and his choreography is usually tightly knit into the score. In this case this integration made his off-the-beat gestures into an added line, a descant, as if it were an addition to the score, and this was what made it so destructive to the naturally flowing meter of Gluck’s dances. This is not to say that his complex, contrapuntal movements weren’t interesting in themselves, but they were out of place in Orfeo. I had the feeling of seeing two different productions at once, perhaps three, counting the Mme. Tussaud’s component. This may be appealing to a generation used to watching tv, listening to an iPod, chatting, and playing Grand Theft Auto all at once, but not to me. When I play Grand Theft Auto, I like to give it my full attention. If the “creatives” of this production pretend that they are honoring the principles of the creators, they are simply being dishonest. The production is an update—of a work which neither needs it nor benefits from it. And if they think a contemporary audience can’t sit through an hour and a half of Orfeo ed Euridice, just as Hollywood producers doubt the ability of youthful multitaskers to sit through a traditional movie, that’s really bad news.

Heidi Grant Murphy as Amor descends ex machina wearing cute little wings, a pink polo shirt and khakis, grinning idiotically. I tried to enter into the spirit of this terminally precious treatment of Venus’ little boy, but it didn’t work, and I could only feel that Ms. Murphy’s vocal and interpretive gifts were being wasted. She looked quite uncomfortable as well, perhaps from the harness that made itlook as if she were wearing a bullet-proof vest under her polo shirt, perhaps from the whole charade she had to perform. As she hung suspended over the stage, the audience let go a few inopportune laughs, which were restrained, but when she appeared later, the grave moment after Orpheus has lost his Eurydice a second time, the audience laughed more heartily, because they had been prepared to find Amor ridiculous, not only by Amor’s first appearance, but by Eurydice’s entrance and exit on the path from Hades up to the world of the living: she is carried up by underworld figures, stretched out rigidly, then springing suddenly to life, and conversely, when Orpheus looks at her, she falls instantly back into her rigid position and into the arms of her bearers. Everyone got a good laugh out of that. The set, a blue and black cylinder with a spiral path cut into it, seemed impressive at first, but after the first minute or two, it began to resemble a cross between a cross section of Castel Sant’Angelo and a gigantic enlargement of a chandelier in a New Jersey supper club.

Beginning with the Elysian Fields, however, Mark Morris’ dances grew more into harmony with the music. I found the Dance of the Blessed interesting, beautiful, and appropriate. After Eurydice’s second revival, the tension was gone, the drama was over, and I found it easier to sit back and enjoy the dancing and the coolness of it all. Like Amor, who more than ever looked like a self-satisfied social worker, the reunited couple, the shepherds and the nymphs, and all the great figures of history, I was ready to join the party.

Gluck, Orfeo, Act III: Stephanie Blythe as Orfeo, Danielle de Niese as Euridice, Chorus and Dancers, photo Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Gluck, Orfeo, Act III: Stephanie Blythe as Orfeo, Danielle de Niese as Euridice, Chorus and Dancers, photo Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

We can’t regard Orfeo in quite the same way these days, now that a generation of period performance specialists have shown us the glories of early opera. The experiment of Calzabigi, Angiolini, and Gluck in bringing a Winckelmannian classicism to the operatic stage can no longer be judged in absolute terms, now that we understand how rewarding the operas of Handel, Vivaldi, Rameau, and the much-maligned Lully actually are. What Gluck did was to catch the wind for a second sailing of opera, which has lasted to the present day. Mozart’s operas would not be what they are without Gluck, and neither would we have Carter’s What’s Next. And then those two giants of the nineteenth century, Berlioz and Wagner, seized on Gluck as a model for reform, further reinforcing Orfeo’s absolute authority as a model of pure opera, honored, to be sure, more than enjoyed. There is room for scholarship and for experimentation in recreating this great opera for modern audiences, just as Berlioz did in his time, but the current Met production is not the answer.What an odd experience this Orfeo was! It ranged from the distinguished contributions of Stephanie Blythe, James Levine, and the chorus to the fatuous trendiness of the rest. I suppose you’d have to call it a curate’s egg. I imagine a Mark Morris production of Gluck’s Don Juan could be a stimulating, satisfying, and witty spectacle, but his approach was not right for Orfeo. Gluck’s opera is classic theoretically, historically, and, not least, because of its quality. A classic establishes its own authority of interpretation, if one can only study one’s way to it without losing one’s artistic sensitivity, re-imagining the past, as musicians like John Eliot Gardiner, Kristian Bezuidenhout, and Vivica Genaux have done so brilliantly. Fashion cannot and should not cancel that out, no matter how much can be accomplished through daring anachronism.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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