By Christoph Willibald Gluck
Conductor: James Levine
Director: Mark Morris
Orfeo: Stephanie Blythe
Euridice: Danielle de Niese
Amor: Heidi Grant Murphy
Back when I got my subscription for the 2008-2009 season, I did mull over exchanging Orfeo ed Euridice for another opera, one of the war horses maybe, but my friend and Met veteran Martin dissuaded me, and I'm very grateful he did. This legendary tale of undying love told by Gluck through the winning triumvirate of music, poetry and dance broke all the rules when it first came out in 1762, and today it remains a powerfully touching study of love and grief, even with an audience-friendly happy ending. Nobody dies, and the heroine actually comes back from the dead! Moreover, with a total duration of a mere 90 minutes, I figured that if worse came to worse, the misery would be short-lived. There was no need to fear though.
One of Orfeo ed Euridice's unique characteristics is the near-constant presence of the chorus, who did a fantastic job Saturday afternoon at evoking first the haunting sadness brought by Euridice's death, and later the joys of love's ultimate triumph over death. It was visually quite arresting as well: Isaac Mizrahi transformed each of the nearly 100 members into a historical personality, all lined up on three levels, emphasizing thereby the timelessness and universality of the myth.
Although I've never been a big fan of female singers impersonating men, I have to admit that mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe was a stupendous Orfeo. Her voice was clear and agile, and she more than anything beautifully conveyed the wrenching pain and agonizing yearning driving the grieving musician. As the irresistible object of desire, Danielle de Niese's Euridice was a strikingly virginal vision and touchingly expressed her increasing confusion at her husband's odd behavior. Their emotionally charged duet in the menacingly dark underworld was definitely one of the highlights of the performance.
Amor was quite a vision as well, but for very different reasons. As she slowly descended from the ceiling amidst chuckles from the audience, her short tousled orangey blond hair and bright pink shirt over casual khakis were quite at odds with what could have rightfully been expected from the God of Love, and even a pair of discreet white wings did not manage to add a celestial touch to the whole unkempt look. She convincingly sang her part though, and perkily provided a bit of welcome relief.
The dance routines were probably for me the least convincing part of the whole production, but they were quite effective at first embodying the dreary mood of Euridice's death, and later were a lot of fun to watch when they all engaged in an exuberantly colorful celebration of the lovers' reunion. I did think this last dance went on for too long, but the score is the score, and I made good use of my time by carefully checking out the chorus and trying to figure out who was who.
All things considered, this Orfeo ed Euridice turned out to be quite an elating adventure. The rich and delicately nuanced music was the perfect background for the subtly poignant singing. No fireworks here, but none were needed. The minimalist set allowed for a quasi real-time, easy flow of the story, and maestro Levine made sure to keep things tight and moving along. The continuous performance went by like a charm, and renewed my resolve to keep on checking out lesser well-known, but ultimately very rewarding, artistic works.