or “Blythe Spirit” By Mirabeau
Gentle readers, my father took me, a boy of 13 to the Vienna premiere of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, and I was also privileged to see the Paris reworking of it in 1774. However, death has its advantages, and so I come to speak to you today of a revival of the opera, long after my time, at New York’s Metropolitan Opera.
It’s a great story in a blessedly brief musical setting. In fact, it ought to be the anthem of every musician (maker and listener), because it’s all about the power of music to conquer death. In addition, it holds up the lofty notion of faithful love as vanquisher of death.
This legend formed the basis for the earliest surviving operas in late sixteenth century Florence, as well as the oldest opera still in the repertoire: Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607), and many subsequent treatments.
The role of Orfeo, the strumming musician who charms the underworld to get his dead wife back, was sung here by the noble and powerful mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, who gave masculine tone colors to the part. Gluck himself said of Orfeo’s three cries of “Euridice!” that are pitted against the choral lament of the opening: “ . . . sing as if someone is sawing through your bone!” The surgical imagery is a bit extreme, but Blythe did fill the part with unusual strength.
Why unusual, since the role is a male character after all, the grieving widower? Well, along about the mid-nineteenth century, someone decided that it would be nicer if we stopped lopping off the testicles of pre-pubescent boys to force certain hormonal changes that would make them into singing machines known as “castrati.”
Castrati were the rock stars of eighteenth century opera, generating mass hysteria among their fans. Because of their altered anatomy, they grew up with expanded chest capacity (like a capon chicken!) and a “female” sounding voice register. Even in my day, the switch over to women singing the parts was happening, and Gluck rewrote the role for soprano, mezzo, and even tenor. Castrati were too much a reminder of the excesses of Baroque opera Gluck was trying to reform with a “noble simplicity.”
One might have wished for slightly more tenderness from Blythe at times, though her voice is a force of nature. She did finally “get there” on the third verse of the famed song/aria “Che farò senza Euridice?”
If Euridice was a cat, she’d still have seven lives left at the end of the opera, since she dies twice within it. The soprano Danielle De Niese sang the role with pure clear and expressive tone. She was also an arresting presence visually, one for whom Orfeo would definitely have braved Hades.
The divine intervention of the goddess of love Amor, who descended on a wire causing unfortunate giggles, was sung by the light voiced Heidi Grant Murphy, who sounded as if she was having an off day.
The production was directed by Mark Morris, a former “enfant terrible” of modern dance. He knows his music, particularly that of the eighteenth century, from the inside, and makes stylized gestures that don’t go against the music, but instead reveal something “behind” the notes, something about its overall emotion. The ballet provided a “danced chorus” as counterpart to the one hundred voice sung chorus.
Those choral singers, arranged in rows of balconies overlooking the action, were costumed as notable figures from all centuries of history, including George Washington, Julius Caesar, John Lennon, Coco Chanel, Mother Theresa, Moses, and Princess Diana. One has to wonder what she was thinking: “Would Charles have done the same for me after that damn automobile crash?” I’m sure the figures were presented to accentuate the timelessness of the story, but it was jarring to see Chairman Mao singing about eternal love.
All the choristers and principals were costumed by noted modern designer and tastemaker Isaac Mizrahi, and I will admit he followed Diderot’s costume recommendation, fresh from my heyday: “What is needed is a few simple garments in a plain color, not a vulgar display of brocade.” In these straightened economic times, the plainness of the principals’ dress seemed even more appropriate.
© 2009 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs