Prima la musica, dopo le parole.
Mark Morris’ production of Gluck’s Italian version of Orfeo ed Euridice, which I saw back in 2007 with the ground-breaking countertenor David Daniels in the lead role, has finally been revived this season, starring mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as Orfeo. On Instagram, Miss Barton, who openly identifies as queer, is a cheerful presence with a vibrant energy. Witnessing an early stage rehearsal, I found myself thinking that perhaps it was not necessary to suspend Hosenrollen-disbelief this time: after all, this was a modern production, so why pretend that Orfeo was a man if he in fact sounded and looked like a woman in a man’s suit? I was perfectly willing to see the story unfold as one between two women, one of them being more on the butch side and the other hyper-feminine. However, by the time I returned to see the full production, Miss Barton had honed her characterization and truly become the grief-stricken young man who manages to sway the gods to exceptionally alter his fate for the better – twice (which is not quite how I remember the Greek legend of Orpheus, but Gluck took some poetic license to give us a more uplifting ending than Virgil.) Miss Barton’s voice is a delight – bright, tender and warm, yet quite capable of taking on some substantial heft when she dips into her deeply resonant chest voice in moments of dramatic outbursts.
The Met chorus, representing the spirits of the dead, is looming over the stage for all but the opera’s pivotal scene, positioned in three superimposed tiers of curved galleries (moved about by visible stage-hands, a postmodern touch I enjoyed very much). Watching the action unfold like an audience in a Greek amphitheater, the singers occasionally react in highly stylized, synchronized fashion, via ceremonious gestures or by addressing the protagonist with righteous scorn or encouragement. Isaac Mizrahi, the production’s costume designer, clearly had a field day dressing them all up: each of the close to 100 choristers is made to represent an iconic historical figure, and what a deliciously politically incorrect mix it is. Is it heaven or hell when John Lennon, Stalin, Isadora Duncan, Lincoln, Händel and Judy Garland stand side by side, contemplating the fate of a suffering mortal? But this is just one example of how this production manages a delicate balance between gravitas and lightness.
For this revival, Mark Morris has brought in his own dance troupe, and the dancers, executing his lean and sensuous choreography with outstanding ease. The corps is present in nearly all scenes, underscoring the plot with subtlety and delightful touches of imaginative whimsy. I could not take my eyes off them, most notably Mark Morris veteran Elisa Clark, a short-haired androgynous beauty with an Annie Lennox- aura, accentuated by Mizrahi’s fitted men’s suits, and possessing a perfect, elegant “line” that made me swoon. In Act I, the dancers represent Orfeo’s friends who mourn Euridice’s passing with Orfeo and console him with great tenderness. In Act II, having accompanied Orfeo on his journey to Hades, they appear to be chased out of the underworld by swarms of flies before returning as cerebral spirits who populate the Elysian Fields and dance like orbiting planets in a world where time does not exist. In the final scene in Act IV, we see them go through a stylized sequence of joyful, celebratory folk dances where, again and again, a member of the troupe is lifted by others as if seated on a chair, winking to the crowd in a way that would behoove a queen indeed. The stellar production owes much of its transcendence to their presence.
Soprano Hera Hyesang Park’s Amor offered a delightful counterpoint to the heavy tragedy of the plot. Suspended in mid- air, dressed in sneakers, khakis and a bright pink t-shirt, she projected a perfectly fitting mix of insouciance and empathy spiked with a dash of puckishness, singing her part with the pure, lilting voice of an actual boy soprano.
Hei-Kyung Hong’s interpretation of Euridice opposite Barton’s Orfeo invited a very specific and decidedly modern take on the ancient story of love and loss. While there is certainly no need to point out the considerable age difference between the two singers (Miss Hong is a seasoned veteran who had her Met debut in 1984), especially since Miss Hong’s beauty and youthful voice completely lived up to what one may expect of Orfeo’s beloved. But I in fact very much enjoyed watching the action between the two unfold as one between an older woman and a younger man. In this light, Euridice had a world-weariness to her that made it all the more believable that she would second-guess Orfeo’s motives, fearfully asking him in a poignant moment if she still appears beautiful to him. Her resolve to rather return to the dead than face possible rejection in life is utterly devastating, and we understand why Orfeo can’t help breaking his deal with the gods to not look at her until he has brought her back into the sunlight. The staging of this pivotal moment is masterful. Upon finally meeting Orfeo’s eyes, Euridice exclaims a last, breathy farewell before sinking into the arms of four spirits who proceed to gently carry her away in complete silence. You could have heard a needle drop in the room as the entire audience held its breath, all hearts beating in unison and empathy. The famous aria that follows, Che farò senza Euridice, is the musical highlight of the evening. In the rehearsal, Miss Barton had still been trying to find the physicality of her character in this most devastating moment, but in the actual performance, she had acquired the gravitas it calls for.
The key to the magic of this production lies in Mark Morris’s astounding musicality. Every inflection of Gluck’s glorious score and libretto is brought to life with poetic subtlety, never ever slipping into heavy-handed melodrama, always true to the essential baroque aim to strive for dignity, grace and perfect form. What he has given us, then, is a jewel of a Gesamtkunstwerk. This Orfeo ed Euridice is like medicine against the mundane vulgarity that surrounds us. It is why I love going to the opera. I urge you to do the same.