Gluck’s Orfe ed Euridice premiered in 1762, let’s say about 162 years after opera was “invented” in Florence. That means it has been around for almost 260 years (stop counting!) and it is still considered one of the best. It brought fundamental reforms to the genre and despite several different versions it has maintained its popularity.
In 2007, The Metropolitan Opera staged a production directed and choreographed by Mark Morris. He is known as a dancer, choreographer, conductor as well as opera director. The 2007 production was revived in 2009 and broadcast Live in HD to cinemas around the world. The Met has streamed it during the Covid-19 crisis (and on the date of the American election) to distract and entertain us.
Morris wanted to put his imprimatur on the production, and he managed to display originality and gimmicky effects that resulted in an interesting staging. The opera begins with a funeral. Euridice is dead and in a grove of laurels and cypress trees, Orpheus and a group of shepherds and nymphs are mourning around her grave.
Morris wants none of that. He has three rows of men and women on scaffolding at the back of the stage. They are the chorus dressed in costumes from across the ages and according to Morris represent dead people who act as witnesses to the events on stage. The corps de ballet is on the stage. The opera has numerous dance numbers and there is some very effective choreography written by Morris. We can do without closeups of their feet but that is not Morris’s fault. More about that later.
Morris emphasizes the gloom and darkness of the piece. Orpheus (mezzo soprano Stephanie Blythe) is dressed in black and the chorus on the scaffolding appear caged at times. Amor (Heidi Grant Murphy) wears a pink sweater, gray slacks and silly white wings as she is lowered on the stage. She provides almost the only colour until Euridice (a lovely Danielle de Niese) appears wearing a white gown.
In the second act, Orpheus approaches the cavernous and menacing Hades where he is met by Furies, Specters and Fantoms of Vengeance. There is no scene change except for the scaffolds holding the Chorus being moved. The dancers are shown in closeups that are annoying and Orpheus strums his guitar as he seeks to evoke the pity of the Furies and gain admission to the mythical hell.
He is allowed into the infernal regions which is supposed to be sunny, delightful and flower-filled. Orpheus sings “Che puro ciele, che chiaro sol” (How clear these skies, how bright the sun). It is the enchanting abode of heroes. It is supposed to be, but it is nothing of the kind. It is the same gloomy scene, but the dancers do wear lighter-coloured modern costumes. We see a ballet where again we are forced to watch meaningless closeups of the dancers far too many times.
We see Morris’s personal view of the opera that arouses some interest but, in the end, it goes a long way from what Gluck composed. When this approach works, the result can be stunning. When it does not it is interesting.
Orpheus was originally sung by a castrato but now is usually sung by a mezzo. Blythe has an expressive voice, and we see Orpheus’s grief at the loss of his Euridice, his moving appeal to the spirits to give her entry to Elysium and his agony at being unable to look at her. It is a splendid vocal performance. But if you have an image of what the godly Orpheus looks like, you may be disappointed. You may find severe incongruity between your imagination and the realty of Blythe’s appearance. Voice and performance supersede all.
Daniel de Niese is a beautiful and marvelously sung Euridice. We feel her delight at being united with her lover and then her fear and agony when he refuses to look at her.
Amor’s costume looked as if it was supposed to be comic. Murphy sang well but I could not quite figure out what Morris was after.
James Levine conducted the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. The chorus and dancers were superb even if the former were perched on the scaffolds.
The performance lasted only about an hour and a half without intermission and, thanks to Gluck, it is enjoyable. As for Morris’s approach, as I said, it was interesting.
Barbara Sweete Willi was the director for cinema and she felt she must change camera shots with frightful regularity.
The 2009 Met production of Orfeo ed Euridice by Christoph Willibald Gluck was streamed by the Metropolitan Opera. For more information visit www.metopera.org