Mark Morris’s marvelous production of Orfeo ed Euridice resonates slyly with the history of opera. In the first version of Orfeo (1762), Christoph Willibald Gluck and librettist Ranieri Calzabigi broke with the conventions of baroque opera in order to fuse poetry, music, and dance in ways that would serve the story rather than show off vocal pyrotechnics. Their Orfeo’s voice is first heard when he breaks through the mourning chorus with a single ringing, heartbroken cry to his dead beloved: “Euridice!” The opera set an example for later composers.
The curtain at the Met rises and before us—amazing!—is another theater, with three very tall, curving tiers of seats. As James F. Ingalls’s lighting gradually reveals the “spectators” (the huge Met chorus) that fill Allen Moyer’s extraordinary structure, we realize we’re looking at a gallery of characters from other operas. Although Isaac Mizrahi designed the clothes for the production, these look as if he raided the Met’s costume shop. The 94 singers, who make small, stylized gestures and motions, or—as the denizens of Hades—crowd to one end of a tier to sing menacingly down at the intruding Orfeo, also represent opera over the last centuries gazing at a progenitor.
Gluck and Calzabigi flouted convention by putting only three characters onstage: Orfeo, Euridice, and Eros. The role of the bereaved but dauntless musician, written for a castrato, is usually sung by a mezzo-soprano (the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, to whom the performances are dedicated, was to have performed Orfeo in this production). Casting countertenor David Daniels links Morris’s Orfeo with the original. When, on the road from Hades, Daniels’s rich, high sound mingles with that of soprano Maija Kovalevska, the close twining of their voices emphasizes the profound love that lies beneath their dissenting words.
Morris, as might be expected, leavens the action with subtle wit. As that cheeky boy Eros, the delightful soprano Heidi Grant Murphy (cropped hair, chinos, little pink-edged wings) descends nonchalantly from on high. After imposing the arbitrary conditions on which Euridice can be brought back to life, Eros starts to rise, before (oops!) deciding to come down and repeat the don’t-look-back warning. When Orfeo, tormented by Euridice’s pleas, faces her, she falls back into the arms of four black-clad men who rush her down the sloping path of a glittering black cavern (Moyer’s set revolves ingeniously). After Orfeo has sung the ravishing “Che farò senza Euridice?” and Eros, quick
as a wink, has appeared to contrive the happy ending demanded of 18th-cen
tury operas, the men run Euridice back in the same position, feet first, as if a deus ex machina had pressed the rewind button.
As also might be expected, Morris emphasizes comradeship and affection. When Orfeo first sings of his loss, those men in black (Met dancers), one by one, approach to comfort him. Morris’s 18 wonderful company members form a vital community—reaching lamenting arms toward Euridice’s invisible bier, clinging to one another as they stagger and grope in underworld gloom, hymning love in Elysium, and celebrating the final reunion of the lovers with lusty dances. Mizrahi has made multiples of their individualized sporty, contemporary outfits—grays for mourning, white for congregating in the Elysian fields, and variegated colors splashed with glitter for rejoicing on earth. These people, too, make the journey from to life to death to rebirth.
Morris’s choreography lies intimately upon the music in terms of rhythm, texture, and quality. He presents the dancers as people you’d like to meet, whether they arch their bodies as they abandon themselves to grief, swing their partners (only some of the happy couples are heterosexual), or toss their legs around in peasant revelry. Their final circling patterns respond to Gluck’s echoing birdcalls-at-dawn; it’s as if they’re tracing on the ground unbreaking rings of love, and the music that so beautifully expresses it.