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Orpheus Ascendant: Stephanie Blythe’s Star Turn at the Met

New York
The Metropolitan Opera
01/09/2009 -  & January 14, 17, 20, 24, 28, 31, 2009
Christoph Willibald Gluck: Orfeo ed Euridice
Stephanie Blythe (Orfeo), Heidi Grant Murphy (Amor), Danielle De Niese (Euridice)
Joshua Green (Harpsichord), Metropolitan Opera Chorus, Donald Palumbo (Chorus Master), Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, James Levine (Conductor)
Mark Morris (Production), Allen Moyer (Set Design), Isaac Mizrahi (Costume Design), James F. Ingalls (Lighting Design) Directors), Mark Morris (Choreographer)

Orpheus, a figure from Greek mythology, was the greatest of all musicians. When he played his lyre, trees uprooted themselves to follow him. Rivers reversed their course. Man and beast, god and mortal, all were enchanted by the power of music.

It seems more than fitting that when Orfeo ed Euridice, Gluck’s opera based on the legend of Orpheus, returned to the Metropolitan Opera last night, the company’s new Orfeo, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, held the audience – mere mortals all – spellbound.

She has a voice that thrills by its very size and its rich burnished tone. As the grief-stricken husband who braves the underworld to retrieve his wife, Euridice, Ms. Blythe used her instrument with passion and subtlety to deliver a performance of astonishing vocal beauty and dramatic truth.

Blythe, who was recently named the 2009 Vocalist of the Year by Musical America, has done star turns at major American opera houses. And she is not new to the Met, where she has sung twenty supporting roles since 1995. In Orfeo, she is the star of what is virtually a one man (or, in this case, woman) show and her tour de force seems certain to be a professional watershed. As the performers took their curtain call, James Levine, the Met’s music director and the conductor of this evening’s performance, repeatedly nudged her forward, to tumultuous applause, for yet another solo bow.

As Euridice, Danielle De Niese, sang with a lovely lyrical voice, great poignancy, and convincing characterization. Heidi Grant Murphy, as Amor (the goddess of love who takes pity on the grieving Orfeo) was a sweet and sprightly presence.

Orfeo ed Euridice, the first of three operas by Gluck and librettist, Ranieri Calzabigi, premiered at the Burg Theater in Vienna on 5 October 1762. Their goal was an ambitious one – to purge opera seria of its ornamental language, opportunities for vocal display, and confusing, convoluted plots. Gluck and Calzabigi valued, above all, unity of music, text, and gesture and the subordination of the various aspects of the opera to a single idea – here Orfeo’s love for Euridice and his grief at her loss. In the service of that goal, they eliminated the secco recitativo in favor of accompanied recitatives and musical continuity. They radically simplified their music as well as their plots. And they restored the chorus to its supremely important role as both a participant and a commentator on the action – as it was in Greek theater.

The vision of ancient Greece as the prototype of what is best and most noble in art, literature, and politics was dominant in the latter part of the eighteenth century. The broad cultural movement that this vision spawned was called neoclassicism, and it was particularly influential in the visual arts. Its central figure was the German art historian, Johann Joachim Winckelmann, whose book, History of Ancient Art appeared in 1764, just two years after the premiere of Orfeo ed Euridice. Winckelmann’s famous characterization of Greek art as manifesting “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur” is a fitting description of Gluck’s reform operas.

Gluck’s conception presented clear guidance – and challenges – for the production team and for Stephanie Blythe. The Met chorus had to occupy a central and crucial role as, in effect, a fourth character in the opera. The choreography had to partake in the unifying musical-dramatic idea and do nothing to distract or detract from the music.

Blythe’s vocal and dramatic abilities would be laid bare with no theatrical distractions and complexities behind which to hide. Musically and dramatically, she had to carry the entire opera, singing an aria in each of the first two acts and an aria and a duet in the third. And she had to infuse her singing with dignity and psychological truth. She did all of that – and more. In the midst of the mourning chorus in the first act, when Orfeo repeatedly cried out the name of his dead wife, piercing the choral line, Blythe pierced our hearts as well. Then came her first aria, “Chiamo il mio ben cosi,” which Gluck wrote in a strikingly simple musical form of three identical parts separated by recitatives.

After the enchanting nature of Orfeo’s music had convinced the gods to allow him through the gates of the underworld to retrieve Euridice, he found himself in the Elysian Fields. Blythe’s performance of the second aria, “Che puro ciel,” was as sublime and entrancing as Orfeo’s impression of Elysium.

In act three, Orfeo leads Euridice back into the world, all the while trying mightily to fulfill his promise to the gods that he would refrain from looking at her until they were safely at their destination. Euridice is in despair, having mistaken his lack of responsiveness for coldness, much as Pamina does in The Magic Flute, when Tamino maintains his vow of silence despite her entreaties. Orfeo, alas, does not pass his test, and Euridice dies once again. (The opera, as opposed to the version of the story in Greek mythology, does have a happy ending; the gods take pity on Orfeo once more and Euridice is revived.)

The last aria of Orfeo, “Che faro senza Euridice,” is the emotional climax of the opera. Again, the structure is simple – the same music sung three times and between them spasms of grief. The poignancy of Blythe’s performance was almost unbearable. All through the opera, the audience had refrained from applauding as the choruses, dances, arias, and recitatives all melted into one another. But when this aria ended, their appreciation could not be contained; the audience erupted into sustained applause.

The Met chorus sat in three rows as spectators in a kind of mobile grandstand designed by Allen Moyer. In all of their incarnations, they were magnificent. In the first act’s mourning chorus, their sound was sublime, even ethereal. In the second act, their mission and their effect were entirely different: they were the furies and ghosts guarding the gates of Hades. They conveyed a chilling emptiness and foreboding. Orfeo attempted to charm them with his music and eventually he succeeded. With stunning sotto voce, they sang of the “unnatural and unknown sentiments” that they felt. Orfeo and music had won them over.

Mark Morris was responsible for the choreography as well as the overall production. His ability to wed music to gesture, as Gluck required, was most fully on display in the second act when, as the furies and ghosts sang their forbidding music, the dancers held hands and moved forward with twisting motions and halting steps.

One aspect of the production was quite imaginative but, alas, deeply flawed: the choral spectators were costumed by Isaac Mizrahi as famous historical personages. First of all, this introduction of clever stage business violated Gluck’s central tenet: radical simplification so that one could concentrate on a single poetic idea and the music that embodies it. Imagination and inventiveness are valuable in opera productions as they are in any other aspect of life. If they work well. Here, unfortunately, the effect was not just silly; it was extremely distracting.

My evidence for this is not just my own reaction but the responses that I heard from other members of the audience (whispering during the opera and in animated conversations as we left the auditorium). It was as if we were all involved in a 2009 version of the American television show, The Hollywood Squares, as we vied with each other to guess the identities of the celebrities arrayed across the stage. Abraham Lincoln was unmistakable, as were Gandhi, George Washington, Einstein and Queen Elizabeth I. Others were the subject of some conjecture: “Was that Princess Di?” “Was that Babe Ruth or Mickey Mantle?” “Was that really Liberace?”

About the music there can be no dispute: The quality of the singers, the chorus, and the Met Orchestra, under the baton of James Levine was simply superb. The orchestra played with stateliness and luminosity giving full expression to Gluck’s masterpiece. Levine will be conducting the next four performances. The January 24th performance will be telecast worldwide in HD. To experience one of the greatest performances of this or any season, Stephanie Blythe’s Orfeo, try not to miss it.

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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