Morris’s exuberant “Orfeo” reigns again at the Met

April 30, 2011
By George Loomis

Kate Royal and David Daniels in Gluck's "Orfeo ed Euridice" at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

If Mark Morris ever staged Wozzeck, he would probably find a breezy, lighthearted way of doing it. Orfeo ed Euridice, while no romp, is more obviously suited to the choreographer’s talents, given that it includes a number of self-contained dance numbers.  But Morris’s enjoyable 2007 production of the Gluck opera, which returned to the Metropolitan Opera Friday evening, by no means restricts his choreographic flair to those pieces. And his flair for exuberance is in evidence at nearly every turn.

Morris doesn’t exactly make light of Orfeo’s grief at the loss of his beloved Euridice, but the initial stage picture is hardly one of mourning.  Look at the costumes of the chorus, which is arranged in tiers in two moveable cage-like structures (sets by Allen Moyer).  One could spot Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandy, an Indian chief and sundry other recognizable figures decked out in Isaac Mizrahi’s costumes.  Likewise, the hyperactivity of the dancers, informally dressed in contemporary garb, seems to emanate from an inner joy or at least an abundance of energy. Lots of hand gestures, human chains and the like

A tall staircase of several stories amusingly facilitates descent by Orfeo—who carries a guitar in lieu of a lyre but (fortunately) does not attempt to play it—to the underworld.  Once he reaches the Elysian Fields the lighting (by James F. Ingalls) takes on a new glow and dancers wear only white.  Soon the happy moment comes when Euridice, borne by four men in black, is returned to Orfeo.

The journey back up, of course, is much more difficult, and here Morris at last creates some dramatic tension, which is especially welcome in coming so late.  The set becomes a dark, amorphous mass, which suggests the route this time is through the earth.  We see the lovers through a cross-section—just them, without the diversion of dancers.  Eventually, of course, Orfeo, casts his fatal glance on his bride, whereupon the men in black return.  But in Gluck’s version Amore reverses the outcome, allowing for the happy ending favored by the 18th century and, presumably, Morris as well.

David Daniels, the production’s original Orfeo, returns to recreate his accomplished portrayal of mythology’s most cherished musician.  Who would have thought a couple of decades ago that the voice of a countertenor would one day resound in the huge house with such poise and assurance?   The voice is capable of subtleties of phrasing as well, as is demonstrated by his affecting rendition of Che farò senza Euridice.  The basic sound is appealing if not always ideally smooth.

The revival is notable for the Met debut of the British soprano Kate Royal.  Her handsomely produced, slightly darkish voice is heard to fine effect in Euridice’s music.  In her duet with Orfeo and subsequent aria she urgently makes credible Euridice’s alarm over her husband’s apparent loss of affection for her.  Casually dressed in a pink polo shirt and sporting a small pair of white wings, Lisette Oropesa is every bit the adolescent as Amore (Cupid) and sings her aria perkily.  She makes her entrance from high above the stage, lowered down by two wires, and when she is done singing, back up she goes.

In a successful Met debut, Anthony Walker, music director of the Pittsburgh Opera and artistic director of Washington Concert Opera, draws crisp playing from the orchestra and sets tempos that create forward motion without impinging on Gluck’s essential grandeur.  Robust singing from the chorus also helps in this regard. Harpsichordist Jonathan Kelly supplies stylish continuo support.  Orfeo is performed in the original 1762 Italian version without a break, rather than the expanded French version Gluck prepared when he intended the opera to stand alone as an evening’s entertainment.

Orfeo ed Euridice runs through May 14.

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