Chavez, de Niese, Murphy / Levine
Whatever may have been the case in previous performances, Wednesday's revival of Orfeo at the Met had a strong and certain protagonist: James Levine. With excellent cooperation from the orchestra and Donald Palumbo's chorus, he led a fresh and moving performance of Gluck's opera. Levine's own particular hand on the tiller was evident from start to end -- clear both in texture and rhythm, encouraging phrases within that frame, and recreating the successive moods of the piece as if his own.
Director-choreographer Mark Morris is responsive to the score's turns as well, and with one exception found effective physical complements to the opera. Of literal action and scene Gluck's opera is (intentionally) short, and the group dances of Morris and his company make for a stimulating alternate form of scene. Their joy -- and the musicians' -- at the end is infectious: it was no coincidence that most of the audience left the theater pleased and exhilarated an hour and a half after having sat down disappointed.
Of course, Morris remains who he is -- a good-natured (choreographically, anyway -- I have no idea of his person) postmodernist whose lapses are overwhelmingly more of cutesiness than the reverse. So the one element of Orfeo he doesn't seem to get is Orfeo himself. The familiar myth doesn't show him as ur-pop star, but as tragic hero: though his music can overturn earth and heaven, it can neither unlink attention from death nor erase his own human compulsion to behold and grasp his beloved. So while it's quite right for Morris and Isaac Mizrahi to dress up Amor -- whose deus-ex-machina intervention for a happy ending was a contemporary add-on Gluck apparently didn't like anyway -- as a perky pink polo-clad cupid, making Orfeo himself into a black-wearing silly-haired emo-country moper slinging a guitar is just confused. And not just Orfeo's dress, but his introduction: the first chorus/dance, with Orfeo and the chorus mourning, is the least effective of the night, with Morris seemingly reluctant to sound at all the note of stark piercing grief.
And still the show worked -- and even despite Orfeo's singer being not much more distinct. In this pants role Kirstin Chavez, whom it seems I last saw about three years back replacing Susan Graham in An American Tragedy, this time replaced the ailing Stephanie Blythe. I quite liked Chavez then, and this time she still had the good qualities, showing the appealing tone of a real American mezzo. But this part is less of a fit: though she's no soprano-sans-top, Chavez lacks the contralto depth in the chest by which Orfeo may communicate so much. In fact the need to really sound these low notes, here not perfectly integrated into the rest of her voice, seemed to be a cumulative strain on her, so that by her big aria ("Che faro") she was actually having pitch issues. (She recovered well by the very last scene.) Nor was she particularly commanding -- Levine led the way, even (especially) through this last aria -- though it seems unfair to ask that much from a cover.
Chavez was paired with Aussie Danielle de Niese as Euridice. de Niese sang well, but her energetically insistent way with the music didn't preclude the (rather destructive) thought that the couple's failure to make it back might have been more from Euridice's willfulness than tragic necessity...
But it's hard to read much into Orfeo and Euridice's interaction because it may have been another element to which Morris didn't much work out -- it is, after all, a long sequence showing Orfeo in tragic torment. Personenregie, so crucial to this key confrontation, seemed this night quite absent. Was it left behind with the cast change or just done poorly in the first place? I'll see when Blythe returns.
Of course, this is the part most discussed among those who didn't attend: after a NYT Tommasini rave (joined by Silverman of the AP) for Blythe that must have spiked ticket sales, the much-overlooked star mezzo failed to sing the very next performance. Of course it's not her fault -- there must be a bug going around the house, as Gheorghiu had cancelled for La Rondine the prior night -- but it was unfortunate. Doubly so, given that the original run had been covered by Tamara Mumford, a young mezzo with a Ferrier-like contralto chest timbre who might have made a huge splash in this spot.
Still, what happened happened. Chavez sang well enough, the show was still a success, and Blythe will presumably return by moviecast time if not sooner.