26 Jan 2009
Orfeo ed Euridice at the MET
I am an ardent fan of Stephanie Blythe, and if you revel in sheer sound, she will delight you, too.
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Orpheus — that Greek hero whose songs could enchant both deities and beasts, whose lyre has become a metaphor for the power of music itself, and whose journey to the Underworld to rescue his wife, Eurydice, kick-started the art of opera in Mantua in 1607 — has been travelling far and wide around the UK in 2015.
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Impresario Boris Goldovsky famously referred to La finta giardiniera as The Phony Farmerette.
I am an ardent fan of Stephanie Blythe, and if you revel in sheer sound, she will delight you, too.
The voice emerges easily, and is of exceptional beauty from top to bottom, at any size you like, Wagnerian power in the very grandest houses, light and quick in coloratura filigree or lieder delicacy as called for. She is also a highly intelligent woman and an effective actress. Stout in a svelte age, she moves with assurance and dignity on stage, and she can cut up deliciously in comedies like Italiana in Algeri and Offenbach’s Grande Duchesse. She is always conscious of differences of style between Handel and Donizetti or Broadway and the avant-garde, and she suits her sound to the music on her plate, light or heavy, intellectual or humorous, baroque or grand operatic or modern. Sincerity and majesty — or, in comedy, irony — are her long suits: she creates a sublime Fricka or Handel’s morbid Cornelia or Poulenc’s Mère Marie or Puccini’s Zia Principessa and wicked Zita . One longs to hear her Amneris and Dalila and Isabella — roles she has won kudos for in other cities, but has never sung in New York — not to mention daydreams of what an Alceste or Fidès or Ortrud she would be.
All of this being so, and the glory of the many times she has thrilled me in the past, I am puzzled by her beautiful but superficial, unmoving performance as Gluck’s Orfeo at the Met. Every note was beautiful but none of it touched the heart, hers or mine — as David Daniels so unerringly did two years ago. Somehow Daniels found the trembling, uncertain, bewildered soul at the heart of this desperate lover, humanizing him, but Blythe makes Orpheus too formal, too rigid — an actor portraying grief because grief is expected of a widowed hero. Coupled with James Levine’s rather quick, unvarying tempi — a bit of a surprise considering his tendency to slow down in Wagner — this was an unemotional, unfeeling Orfeo.
In startling contrast, Danielle de Niese, whose pretty, tireless soprano sometimes leaves me cold, projected all the desperation and confusion of Euridice’s plight without distorting any of its usual beauty. (Heidi Grant Murphy, as Amor, was a cipher with bad technique.)
I should mention that, like many no doubt, I had been worried about Blythe’s appearance and movement in some version of the man-in-black (-with-pointless-guitar) costume worn by Daniels, but here she has been well-served (and has served herself well): she looked massive in a dignified and masculine way, like one of our turn-of-the-century presidents, she moves with the proper gravity. For an opera to be telecast, this sort of thing is important — but not all-important.
Stephanie Blythe as Orfeo and Heidi
Grant Murphy as Amor with chorus in background
The myth of Orpheus is not a theatrical story — boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy has a chance to get her back but blows it. There is very little for the girl to do, and hardly anything for anyone else: it is practically a monodrama, though it has never (to my knowledge) been set to music that way. To the ancients, it was a tale of death and mystical rebirth, and if you joined the cult of the Orphic Mysteries, you could enter the Members Only section after death — but that won’t do today: we need a more universal message, like “Love conquers all,” even though it clearly doesn’t. (Has anyone you loved come back from the dead? Was that because you didn’t love them enough? Does anyone dead come back? Mythologically, Eurydice never did.)
But as Orpheus was the mythic type of the musician, whenever opera remembers its classical roots (not that they have much to do with what opera turned into), Orpheus gets updated and some theatrical sense must be made of his quest. In Offenbach’s operetta (a send-up of Gluck), the two lovers have irreconcilable differences over his old-fashioned taste in music. In Sarah Ruhl’s recent play, Eurydice, the girl tricks Orpheus into looking back because she doesn’t want to rejoin him: she prefers cozy death to chancy life.
Danielle de Niese as Euridice
When Gluck and his librettist, Calzabigi, approached the subject, in a self-consciously “reforming” mood, they started out by omitting “boy meets girl, boy loses girl” — these events have already occurred at curtain rise. They then expanded Orfeo’s quest to the Underworld into several great solo, chorus and dance opportunities. Then came their big alteration of the legend: instead of going so quietly that Orfeo isn’t sure she’s there, begins to doubt the word of his gods, and betrays his oath, this Euridice is a nag who never shuts up, and Orfeo (who is barred, in this version, from telling her why he cannot turn to look at her), is finally driven to violate his word. Euridice is lost and Orfeo gets his most famous aria, “Che faro.” This is followed by alteration two: The gods change their minds and give her back anyway. If you have read the synopsis before you go in, this will undercut the tragic level of what has gone before, but it does allow for extended dances of rejoicing and a happy hymn to triumphant Love for us to hum going home.
I’ll admit I’ve never been entirely happy with any staging I’ve seen of Gluck’s opera (six and counting) — though from what I read, the current Viennese one sounds promising, austere and grand. The opera is so tightly focused on Orfeo’s feelings that there should be as little opportunity for wandering attention as possible, and I’ve been most pleased when, for example, the chorus were out of sight, in the orchestra pit, and dancers mimed their feelings. The Mark Morris staging at the Met seems mostly to be about Isaac Mizrahi’s costumes (creating far too much individuation precisely where it was not wanted), so that the rhythmic gestures of the corps de ballet miming grief and sympathy (and, in the finale, rejoicing), are distractingly individual, while the hundred historic “witnesses” of the chorus who look on at this (and who become without change of costume furies or whatever the libretto needs) seem a pointless extravagance.
We always knew Blythe could sing the music; she can sing anything. But the role does not play to her strengths, and I eagerly await her appearance in something that does.