Sunday, 8 May 2011

The Met’s 2007  production of Orfeo ed Euridice has been revived this year, with Antony Walker conducting; and I saw its opening night.

I had heard this production via the Met’s radio broadcast in 2007 and remember it as probably the most thrilling opera broadcast I have ever heard.  The countertenor David Daniels sang Orfeo in a way which gave the familiar music a different and vital sound.  I imagine that, like me, many people were introduced to Gluck’s Orfeo by recordings of Kathleen Ferrier singing I have lost my Euridice, in her rich and distinctive voice.  Opera Australia’s production gave the role to a tenor with good effect.  However, I felt that David Daniels performance was not only beautifully sung, but also added a completely unexpected emotional edge.

Later the same year, I heard David Daniels in the theatre for the first time in Handel’s Julius Caesar in Chicago and was disappointed that his voice seemed to be swallowed up by the huge space of the Lyric.

The Met is a big theatre too, and I wondered if this production is the largest Orpheus and Euridice ever mounted.  There is a chorus of about 75 members and 22 dancers.  The set is made of large mobile structures that move and reconfigure from time to time.  At one point, Orpheus is seen on a large metal fire excape which descends from above and partly disappears into the floor of the stage.  This is not, as I wrongly guessed, the stairway for the ascent from the underworld: there is a different more stygian configuration of the set for that.

The chorus is located on three levels of the inside of a cylindrical structure which forms one element of the set.  Each member of the chorus is dressed as an historical figure: Henry VII, Abraham Lincoln, Ghandi etc.  The idea is that the performance of the ancient myth is being observed by figures from history.  Their vantage point could be three of the circles of hell, but I’m not sure if we are being asked to identify which three; the identification of the figures is a little distracting, but for me the performance was too engrossing to be troubled by a game of Trivial Pursuit.

The use of dance in this production is a real stroke of genius.  There are, as mentioned, 22 dancers and their style is completely modern.  They dance during the choruses as well some of the more specific dance music.  A program note explains:

“ For the Met’s production of Oprheo ed Euridice, director and choreographer Mark Morris and Music Director James Levine (who conducted this staging when it was new, in 2007) returned to Gluck’s 1762 version from Vienna, written in Italian for an alto castrato and later revised for Paris productions.  Their intent was to stay true to the composer and Librettist’s original ideas by stripping away additions from late revisions, including the Dance of the Furies, which Morris feels breaks the flow of the opera.  The Dance of the Blessed Spirits, which was part of the original 1762 version, will be heard but without accompanying choreography.”

The use of dance gave a sense of vigour and excitement to the whole show.  It helped solve what I believe to be a problem in staging more intimate works, including Mozart, on the Met’s huge stage. For example, in 2006 I saw the Met’s Idomeneo,  (which available on a video in a  Luciano Pavarotti  performancedating from the early nineteen eighties).  The stage action, and emotional force of the opera, seemed to get lost among the huge pillars and monumental staircases of the set.  Here, however, the staging adds what is needed to make a work of this kind viable in the large space. 

David Daniels'  performance as Orfeo met the expectations aroused by the 2006 broadcast.  His voice was not lost in the space and he was able to add an elusive quality which I have not otherwise heard in a countertenor which gave the role the emotional edge I heard in the radio broadcast.  He was well supported by English soprano Kate Royal as Euridice and Lisette Oropesa, who first appears on a swing from above, as Amor.

Antony Walker, as musical director of Pinchgut Opera in Sydney has given us so much musical pleasure over the last ten years; so it was very exciting to chance upon his debut at the Met. Although the more appropriate size of the production had something to do with it as well, his performances of Idomeneo in the City Recital Hall Angel place in 2006 following close on my hearing the Met production I have mentioned  seemed to me at the time to have everything which the New York production lacked. 

Now the situation was reversed.  A small space was replaced with nearly 4000 seat Met auditorium and the familiar forces of the Orchestra of the Antipodes and Cantillation with the Met Orchestra and a chorus of 75.  The Met orchestra was quite a small ensemble for Orfeo, but I didn’t count the players.

My long term planning was effective, and I had an excellent view of the conductor’s podium from our seats in row B of the Orchestra.  The conductor’s podium at the Met is raised so that the Maestro can always be seen.  The two seats directly behind him are sold at a discount to compensate for the obscured view.  I heard a story this year of how this came about – at first the podium was lower and the conductor didn’t obscure anything.  Then Herbert von Karajan came to the Met and required to be elevated into public view.  After that, no conductor was prepared to work in the old, less conspicuous position.

In any event I had an excellent view of Mr. Walker at the podium; his face illuminated by the lights from the music stand.  On his arrival, there was a pause, some eye contact with the musicians and we were away with a lively account of the overture.   With 75 historical figures to indentify and some outstanding singing, I didn’t spend much time conductor watching and can only say that the overall performance was completely satisfying.   At the conclusion, it was nice to see the dancers’ applause when Mr. Walker appeared.   They played an important part in the success of the performance and obviously appreciated the support from below.

Orfeo ed Euridice, Metropolitan Opera New York, 29 April 2011

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