Gluck’s opera received its 91st performance at the Met on Saturday January 24, 2009, it’s first was in 1885. Ninety one performances over 124 years puts Gluck’s opera in a special category. Is it a masterpiece that somehow frequently gets forgotten or is it a castor oil opera? Orfeo ed Euridice is not hard to cast. There are only three soloists. None of these three parts is very difficult. So why is it performed so infrequently?
I think the opera is close to being a castor oil opera – ie, take it even if it tastes awful; it’s good for you. Critics and conductors are always forcing operas on the public that the public either avoids or attends just to appear enlightened. Examples of such operas are Wozzeck, Lulu, Pelléas et Mélisande, and anything by Britten other than Peter Grimes. All new operas written over the past half century belong to this category. Opera is either a dead art form or is in a extraordinarily protracted barren stretch. Only the appearance of a genius will prove it’s not deceased.
Back to Orfeo. It has some real virtues. First it’s short. The Met did it (the 1762 version) in about 90 minutes with no intermission. It has a great part for a mezzo-soprano (castrati are in short supply right now). The music is uniformly good. I know that’s a terrible thing to say about a classic opera, but it’s true. It has a stateliness and a refined grace about it.
The singers were outstanding. The opera belongs to Orfeo who is on stage virtually all the time. Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe sang the part with complete vocal control and beauty. The audience loved her. The opera’s most famous number “Che farò senza Euridice” would have brought tears to Berlioz’s eyes. He, of course, was Gluck’s most rabid fan. While Berlioz could conjure a passion about almost anything, it’s hard to be passionate about Gluck. He elicits admiration rather than love. Blythe who is a large lady looked pretty butch in a dark suit. She used a guitar instead of a lyre to get by the furies.
Danielle de Niese is a very young American soprano who was born in Australia. Though only 28 she’s been singing at the Met since 1998 – mostly very small roles. She sang Cleopatra in Handel’s Giulio Cesare at the Met in 2007 and is Euridice in this run of the Gluck opera. She’s so beautiful that you can understand why Orfeo is ready to go to hell and back to change her from a spirit to a flesh and blood woman. She was dressed in a white shmatah that looked like a shredded wedding gown. It didn’t matter she looked great in it. Her singing was as good as her looks. She has a supple lyric soprano that holds great promise.
The last character in this brief opera is Amor. She’s the deus ex machina that runs the plot. There really isn’t much of a story here. It’s so slender that I won’t bother with it. Amor was sung by Heidi Grant Murphy who looked like Fritz Frelang had designed her. She wore a pink shirt and a pair of little wings. I expected to hear Mel Blanc say “I taut I taw a puddy tat” when she opened her mouth, but instead heard a pleasant soprano. She was lowered by a cable during her first entrance. Actually, she looked like a life-sized rubber ducky.
Choreographer Mark Morris directed and choreographed the dances. A self proclaimed “Old opera queen” – that’s what he said about himself when interviewed by Joyce Di Donato (who is a very good interviewer) before the show – did better with the staging than he did with the dances. The latter looked more like calisthenics than dancing or maybe it was Tai chi. Whatever it was that the dancers where doing it most closely resembled exercise.
The chorus was pretty odd as well. They were placed on three tiers of platforms. What’s with the Met and bleachers? They seem to be in every production this year. Doesn’t a carpenter there have a new idea? Each chorister had his/her own costume representing some figure from history; they also were speaking (in addition to singing) MOSL – Metropolitan Opera Sign Language. They’d point, gesticulate, and make bizarre gestures at fairly frequent intervals. They looked like they belonged at an inaugural. Since I don’t understand MOSL I have no idea what they were up to. Maybe they were dressed up and signing to distract the audience from Gluck’s relentless homophony. Handel said that his cook knew more about counterpoint than did Gluck. According to Charles Rosen the cook did.
James Levine conducted with authority. He obviously likes this opera, but he seems to like everything. And if you could take your eyes off them – in this production they should be treated like a gorgon – the chorus sang with their usual skill. I hope to live past the Met’s 100th performance of Orfeo ed Euridice, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
The video direction by the same Ms Sweete who messed up the Damnation of Faust was unobtrusive. It was ok.