This weekend I had the opportunity to see the Met's production of Orfeo ed Euridice. I was lucky enough to get partial-view tickets to the Saturday, January 17 1:00 matinee. Performing that afternoon was Stephanie Blythe as Orfeo, Heidi Grant Murphy as Amor, and Danielle de Niese as Euridice. Conducting was Maestro James Levine. An all-star line-up to be sure!
This production of the mythological tale of Orpheus and Euridice was unique, appealing to me
with it's celebrity star power collaboration with personal favorite choreographer Mark Morris and designer Isaac Mizrahi. At a total running time of an hour and a half in length with no intermission (is that allowed in opera?) and an on stage chorus of 100 members dressed by Mizrahi to represent historic personalities, this production was perfect for the occasional opera patron like myself.
In a nutshell, the opera follows one of the many myths involving Orpheus (Orfeo), "the father of songs." Orfeo's wife, Euridice dies from a snakebite and through his heart-wrenching songs of grief, Orfeo is encouraged by Amor (Cupid), to enter Hades to retrieve his lost love. The catch is that he may not look at her until they are out of Hades, or tell her why he won't look at her, otherwise she will die a second time and be lost forever. All goes well as Orfeo woes the gates of Hades open with his song and finds Euridice. But as they climb the treacherous path out, Euridice pitches a hissyfit, wanting to know if she is still beautiful and complaining that if Orfeo will not look her, then she would prefer death to a passionless marriage. Orfeo gives in out of desperation, turns to her, and she dies instantly, a second death. He mourns his loss and plans to kill himself. Amor returns, takes pity again, and revives Euridice a second time and they live happily ever after, a true testament that love conquers all.
I would never dare to review or critique the performances of the leads other than to say it sounded good to me! But the New York Times offered a stellar review that as a friend who is in the Met Opera's Lindemann Young Artist Development Program described was so complimentary, it was as if [Blythe's] mom wrote it! As a composer who generally prefers jazz and pop music to her one Renee Fleming CD, I can honestly say that for the most part, I enjoyed this performance more than expected.
To begin with, the packaging for this production made it hard for me to dislike it before I even heard the first strain of the opening overture. As I mentioned before, I am a big fan of the Mark Morris Dance Group and was intrigued to see how it's modern movements would fit into an opera from 1762. I was pleasantly surprised to see the ballet cast do a fairly good job of approximating Morris's choreography and beloved fluid style. The involvement of Isaac Mizrahi I found interesting (I'm sad to say I'm sure I have a least one of his pieces from his Target line a few years back!). The subject matter I was vaguely familiar with, but as a rule I love almost all Greek mythology and fell in love with the synopsis before the show began. Then there was the chorus. The 100 member chorus was on stage the entire production in a three tiered movable set (see pic above) giving the illusion of a forum or lecture hall. But the hook was that each member was dressed by Mizrahi as a figure from history. The idea being that these were the spirits that Orfeo would meet in Hades. When the recitative became tiresome, one only had to scan the chorus to see who was recognizable. I spotted Abe Lincoln, Queen Elizabeth I, Cleopatra, a random pope, and Princess Diana. (the Met website has a really cool key identifying who all of the cast members are portraying)
While the overall experience was enjoyable, there were a small handful of aspects I found disagreeable. Euridice, for example, was almost intolerable! Not the performance of her, mind you; I found Danielle de Niese to be stunning in the role and to my novice ears sang beautifully, but it was the character herself that was insufferable! For an all-female lead cast, the portayal of the only female was not positive. In need of attention the whole time, she came off as a petty house wife from Orange County who could not believe the nerve of her husband for not complimenting her beauty. Never mind the fact that he just brought her back to life from sheer love, why wasn't he telling her how gorgeous she was! This scene between just Orfeo and Euridice, as Orfeo tried to persuade Euridice to hurry as they escaped Hades went on a little too long for my attention span. I seriously just wanted Orfeo to shut his eyes, knock her out, and carry her out of Hades (which he totally could have done without looking!). But instead they bantered back in forth for longer than necessary. When Orfeo finally turns to look at her, Euridice convinces me of her surprise at a second death, but Orfeo seems glad to have the nagging silenced. Despite his song of supposed grief, I felt none of the expected heart-wrenching unrequited love I was so hoping to feel. When Amor returns and brings back Euridice, there seemed to me a lack of drama. As if he was like, oh cool, she came back, hope she doesn't start on the am I pretty again. For such a dramatic exposition of love conquers all, I could have slept through the whole scene (like the guy in front of me.)
This was just par for the complexity, or lack thereof, of the music. While I found the melody and orchestration, especially when the chorus was singing to be beautiful, the music was quite repetitive and not very challenging to listen to. Almost like listening to "pop" opera. According to Wikipedia and the program notes, this opera is the first of composer Christoph Willibald Gluck's "reform" operas, in which the "abstruse plots and overly complex music of opera seria" were replaced with "a "noble simplicity" in both the music and the drama." This resulted in a lack of the sometimes over embellished arias, and a more direct, real time telling of events. Gluck collaborated with choreographer Gasparo Angiolini and librettest and poet Ranieri de'Calzabigi to overhaul the "often stilted conventions of Baroque opera seria." Twelve years later the opera was revised to suit the tastes of the Parisian audiences, changing the role of Orfeo from a castrato (which is why a female usually sings this part) to a high tenor, and adding additional ballet sequences. Modern productions often blend the two versions, but this retelling was inspired by Levine and Morris to stay true to the 1762 version.
With it's modern trappings, short running time, agreeable melodies, and stellar performances, this "pop opera" is an ideal production in which to introduce oneself to opera.
“Orfeo ed Euridice” runs through Jan. 31 at the Metropolitan Opera, (212) 362-6000, metopera.org.