Orfeo ed Euridice

The Metropolitan Opera on Wednesday, May 9.

Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice is an odd little opera. For one thing, Euridice ends up alive, even after Orfeo disobeys the gods and turns to look at her as he leads her out of the underworld. As one reared on Greek myths, I find that happy ending kind of appalling, but according to the Met’s program notes, Gluck did, too (“I was forced to alter the climax,” he lamented), so I feel a bit more forgiving on that score—especially considering how gorgeous the music is.

And damn, is it ever gorgeous. Gluck avoids vocal pyrotechnics in favor of a refreshingly unshowy aesthetic: simple and poignant. Even the narrative structure is pared down. With only three solo parts (Orfeo, Euridice, and Amor), the opera’s straightforward, subplot-free storytelling makes the already archetypal tale feel positively elemental. Nothing distracts from the beauty of the music.

Even the idiosyncrasies of director Mark Morris’ production couldn’t distract, which was good, because as much as I enjoyed its more fanciful elements, I can see how they might have been too intrusive with lesser music or musicians. Morris imagined the members of the chorus—nearly one hundred strong, occupying an enormous three-tier amphitheater on stage—as witnesses to the timeless drama before them, and designer Isaac Mizrahi illustrated that timelessness by outfitting them in historical costumes—highly specific historical costumes—spanning centuries and continents. Thus, everyone from Albert Einstein to Mahatma Gandhi to the first Queen Elizabeth occupied the steel bleachers, from which they keened sympathetically when Orfeo mourned his lost beloved and beamed joyfully when the couple was reunited. It was odd, frankly, to be watching Orfeo’s descent into Hades and to realize suddenly that Frederick Douglass was watching, too, but in a weird way, it did make the opera feel more universal.

Less quirky but perhaps more effective was Morris’ choreography, enhancing the mood of each scene. The dancers played mourners and furies and the blessed souls of Elysium in turn, with graceful, agile steps, like natural movements converted into art. The lighting was quietly striking, too, suggesting the transition from hellish torment to heavenly bliss with subtle changes in color.

But the real attraction, of course, was the music. Gluck wrote the role of Orfeo for a castrato, but now that we no longer neuter our boy sopranos, the part is sung today by a female mezzo-soprano or, as was the case in this production, a countertenor, a man with an extraordinarily high vocal range. You expect a man to hit such high notes only in a breathy falsetto, so hearing David Daniels sing Orfeo’s lines in a strong, ringing head voice is disorienting, even eerie at first. But Daniels is such a talented musician—ravishingly expressive with a powerful, resonant tone—that the foreignness of his instrument soon becomes irrelevant.

Heidi Grant Murphy portrayed Amor with an amusingly jaunty, playful style, and Maija Kovalevska was lovely as Euridice. Her duet with Daniels was particularly beautiful as their voices wove together in a velvety harmonic line.

The highlight, though, was Orfeo’s deservedly famous third-act aria, “Che farò senza Euridice?” With the elegantly, poignantly mournful melody, Gluck proves that you don’t need a minor key to express tragedy, and Daniels’ performance of the song was breathtaking, the kind of musicmaking that compels you to shiver happily, overcome by the beauty of it. After that, how could I pout about the desecration of the Greek myth? Maybe Orfeo deserved his happy ending.

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