At this time of year in the 17th and 18th-centuries the princes and aristocrats of northern European would journey south over the Alps to Venice for Carnival Season. Innumerable and irresistible were its debaucheries and distractions, many of which were to be found in the city’s opera houses. These places promised pleasure for all the senses: opulent dining, sex, spectacular stage sets, and lavish singing by the titanic entertainment celebrities of the period, the Hollywood stars of their time. In Italy, and at the outlets for Italian opera blockbusters spread across the continent, the male heroes were sopranos. The great castrati were the anatomically altered Tom Cruises of their day—but taller, more talented and more manly.
Up here in the centrally isolated outback of central New York, the Big Apple is our Venice, the East River our Grand Canal. But with snowstorms in the Poconos and a Subaru four-wheel-drive transmission singing its bloodcurdling death song, Manhattan was as out of reach as the tickets only a 18th-century potentate could afford. Like today’s Wall Street princes, many a Baroque box-holder was bankrupt but somehow they could still get credit.
So instead of the Met it was the multiplex for us. Last year the Metropolitan Opera House began simulcasting a series of their Saturday matinee performances to selected theatres across the country and abroad. On the 24th of January it was Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice at the Met and on two screens at the Ithaca Mall. Instead of the sparkle of the Met’s grand foyer, the pop of champagne corks, the flash of decolletage and diamond cufflinks, and the heady competition of expensive perfumes, it was salt-caked snow boots, the scent of popcorn, and the mute stares of cardboard cutouts of the latest action heroes, both human or canine. With the amenities of free parking and stadium seating on offer, the Holy Roman Emperor himself might have given up his box at the Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo. At twenty bucks, the tickets simulcast are three times as much as the matinee price for the movies, but a tenth of a decent seat down in New York.
On a recent trip to this same mall, in truth a penitentiary for the feral youth of the region, I deposited my two kids in High School Musical 3 and shuttled back and forth between that harmless romp and the Met simulcast of John Adams’ Dr. Atomic. On that Saturday afternoon there was no way I was going to convince my preteen charges that the gloom of Oppenheimer’s Los Alamos had more to offer them than the chaste celebration of adolescent song and dance over in theatre six.
But among the many charms of Gluck’s 1762 opera is its length. At a running time of ninety minutes, Orfeo ed Euridice is that rarest of creatures: a short opera. With one daughter already committed to a so-called play-date in Ithaca’s centro storico, I enlisted my eleven-year-old, long fascinated by the strange spectacle that is opera, to accompany me.
With the endlessly inventive Mark Morris acting both as choreographer and director, and his friend Issac Mizhravi designing the costumes, this promised to be kid-friendly opera with lots of glitz. The simulcast tries to offer the mallgoers something that theatergoers down in New York City don’t get: a look behind the scenes. The live feed provided views of the chorus lining up in the wings, and pre-curtain interviews with Maestro James Levine and Mark Morris, the latter sporting an impressive belly and a bright pink scarf.
In bringing dance back to the center of Gluck’s opera, Morris achieved his avowed goal of restoring choreographed movement to its proper place in musical theatre of the period. His warm and witty interview with a mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato was equally refreshing. After opening his remarks by describing himself as “ a life-long opera queen,” Morris concluded with the oft-forgotten truth that “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” Praised in the 18th-century for its careful attention to the contours of the characters’ emotions, Gluck’s opera would here be restored to its lilt and liveliness.
The opera is in three compact acts, the second of which takes place in the Elysian Fields. This setting prompted Morris to have the chorus—a crucial player in Gluck’s dramas in contrast to the serious opera of the first half of the 18th century—be comprised of a hundred or so famous historical figures. This gave costume designer Mizravi the chance of lifetime to dress up Abraham Lincoln, Genghis Khan, and Cleopatra and other celebrities of the past. These figures were displayed on scaffolding so that each could be seen in full-length view, as history’s greats looked down at Orfeo as he mourned the loss of his love and set about retrieving her from beyond Lethe. This riot of fashion statements yielded an effect more foolish than zany, though it was undeniably fun to pick the far-flung personages as the simulcast camera scanned the ranks of the walking dead, treating us to the rare sight of Gandhi rubbing shoulders with Napoleon.
Gluck keeps Orfeo on stage virtually the entire ninety minutes. The opera demands that the lead carry the show. Nowadays it’s typically a trouser role sung by a woman, in this case Stephanie Blythe. She has a rich, powerful voice that has something of that mysterious, looming power so often attributed to the sound of the castrati of the 18th-century.
Gluck famously eschewed the showy singing of the period for a more nuanced, simpler style, requiring that his singers convince through register and shading, exploring the infinite gradations of the highly-trained human voice. Influenced during his London years in the 1740s by the naturalistic acting of David Garrick, Gluck similarly demanded a believable representation of emotion through facial expression and gesture, even singing.
As a singer Stephanie Blythe makes for an Elysian Orfeo, and as an actor she has a quite an impressive range, from the grief-stricken to intrepid. But the central problem of the production resulted from the goofily diverse make-up of the chorus. Blythe is a big woman, more Wagnerian than Gluckian. More problematic, though, is her striking physical similarity to Babe Ruth, with her big body, round face and even the same dimple. When, about halfway through the second act, I spotted Ruth’s old teammate Lou Gehrig up in the top row of the chorus, I began to think that Morris and Mizravi might even be rather mischievously and unkindly playing with this affinity between Blythe and the Babe. Blythe’s bobbed, jet black hair clinched the connection to Babe.
Yes, Blythe musically hit the classic numbers from the opera out of the park. No longer able to endure the nagging of Euridice that she be looked at and assured that her beauty has not withered in Hades, Orfeo sings “Che farò senza Euridice?” (What shall I do without Eurydice). Blythe performance pushed at the edges of that famous arias decorum, its gracious major harmonies and symmetrical phrases made majestic with noble pathos. Especially for modern audience not schooled in the seemingly staid naturalism of the gallant style of the 18th-century, this aria can fall victim to its own melodic and metrical formulas. Blythe found the lonely, echoing depths behind its classical facade.
Euridice is a relatively small role in the opera, and the libretto is not particularly kind to her. The uninterrupted flow of vanities that escape her lips when Orfeo is reunited with her, makes one almost wish she be banished to Hades again. The part was taken by Danielle De Niese, whose supermodel figure, huge and glamorous smile, facial features so gorgeous that they seem almost to have been statistically generated, light brown skin, and dark tresses threatened to make Blythe’s Orfeo look ridiculous even in the few short minutes they share together on stage. The production seemed rather meanly to exploit Del Niese’s almost alarming physical perfection to Blythe’s detriment. Mizravi covering Del Niese’s form in plunging feather white gown as against Dance all-black tails. The uncomfortable tension lessened Del Niese’s tendency to overact. If she had been more convincing the mockery would have been unbearable.
In the event, however, the moment when Orfeo gives in and looks at his spouse and she dies all over again is brutal for its suddenness, and one feels all the emotional power of Gluck’s simplicity. I glanced at my daughter and could see a lone tear caught in the light from the big screen. But just as quickly Amor—sung with an infectious humor by Heidi Grant Murphy sporting a pink polo short, white capri pants, and tennis shoes—appears and brings Euridice back to life yet again. The lieto fine ensues filled with the graceful counterpoint of Morris’ dance, a grand final chorus, and the reuniting of the lovers. This is a reversal of mood as quick and opportunistic as anything even churned out by Hollywood.
My daughter turned to me, wiping the tears from her cheek. “I like happy endings,” she said. In real life most of historical members of the chorus didn’t have that luxury, but they wereall smiling too. In the opera house as in the multiplex feeling good is what it’s all about.
DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org