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Orfeo ed Eurydice

Christoph Willibald Gluck, libretto by Ranieri de' Calzabigi
Metropolitan Opera House, New York
(2009)

Production photo

Mark Morris, best known as a choreographer, has come up with an iconoclastic interpretation of Gluck's opera of unquenchable love. It is well designed for him, with long, courtly musical interludes between the singing of a simple tale.

The early scenes are very static, as over 100 performers are banked on four curving levels, appreciating the overture and opening scene as a female singer, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe playing Orfeo, mourns the loss of his desperately missed wife.

On closer inspection, the onstage "audience" ranked across the stage on the top three levels turn out to be famous historical figures. Not all are recognisable but you will easily spot Abraham Lincoln, Mae West, Henry VIII, Moses and Jimi Hendrix as well as a Nazi officer, Cowboys and Indians.

The bottom layer consists of dancers, although they initially do little more than stretch and wave arms around.

The drama develops in the second and third acts, as first the banks of celebrities split and revolve to allow Orfeo's trip into Hades, the underworld, in his quest to bring the glamorous Eurydice back up to earth.

As everyone knows, there is only one condition laid down by the brave Heidi Grant Murphy playing Amor, who flies in from a terrifyingly high point seven storeys above the stage.

This scene between Stephanie Blythe and soprano Danielle de Niese as Orfeo and Eurydice is truly moving, as the unfortunate husband attempts to resist a final look at his dead bride. So well was this played that when he lost his battle, there was an audible gasp from an audience that must surely have been expecting this outcome.

However, Amor is a charitable spirit, allowing love to conquer all and as a consequence vibrant colour to flood in for the final celebrations, which prove to be the visual highlight of an evening that up to that point had largely been seen in black and white.

The three acts of Orfeo ed Eurydice only last for around 90 minutes and a fair proportion of that time is spent in dance that often brings to mind Matisse's Dance series of paintings.

The orchestra, conducted by the Met's Music Director, James Levine, and chorus provided strong support to Miss Blythe, who was given greatest chance to shine and also Miss de Niese, who made the most of relatively limited opportunities.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher