Saturday, January 24, 2009

The three faces of Orfeo

I saw Stephanie Blythe sing the role, and it changed the sense of the whole show from last week's cover performance.

Levine is still terrific, and his leaving the post-moviecast performances to Kazem Abdullah (of whom I've heard nothing) makes these latter a bit iffy. The singing of the chorus is still a highlight.

But Blythe is a huge, huge force. And not just in the voice, which though satisfying, full, even, and not lacking reserve force does not overpower with sound alone -- in this part, anyway. She sings the plain but expressive lines of the opera's original Vienna version with an unforced tragic gravity... Something we also see in her person. More surprising to me -- though perhaps it shouldn't have been -- was the unforced masculinity of her Orfeo. She is helped in this, I think, by her fleshiness: as a man, in her hands, it becomes her substantiality, the ground and proof of Orfeo's strong spirit -- akin to what one saw in, say, Churchill.

This combination -- her masculine gravity -- quite eclipses the more pop-ish trappings Mark Morris and Isaac Mizrahi have put on her character in this Met production. Blythe's Orfeo is, despite anything or everything, a tragic figure, and that side of the tale -- and the show -- again comes to the fore in her person.

But this also foregrounds contrasts that her cover's less-defined portrayal let stay obscure. The first encounter with Amor, for example, is now truly jarring, with Orfeo's palpable grief interrupted by a phenomenon from a wholly different universe. Heidi Grant Murphy's Amor, goddess of perkiness, is a figure from popular TV, as far from Blythe's Orfeo as Zerbinetta from Ariadne. But in that opera the two characters fail to interact (which is the point): here they must, for the story's sake, but on this stage the connection is perfunctory. Neither Blythe nor Murphy breaks her character's personal spell to accomodate the other's.

Amor has drawn some comment, but no less odd was the presentation of Eurydice. Whether by direction or personal choice, Danielle de Niese seems to play Orfeo's lost wife as if she were Adina in L'Elisir d'Amore: Euridice as comic siren, a lovely flirt and pain in the butt. Again, the juxtaposition is jarring -- domestic romantic comedy next to the literal struggle of life and death.

This revival thus offers all three modes of drama -- the tragic, the comic, and the popular -- allocated among the three main characters. As a whole, it's a strange but compelling experience. Now one might say this heterogenous mix is par for the course for a postmodernist director like Mark Morris, but to no small extent Morris has only played up what was already in the Gluck. As the last post noted, Amor -- and especially Amor's role in providing a happy ending -- was a crowd-pleasing add-on to the myth in the first place, the original tale providing Orpheus no solace when his wife again fell. (He was, by a number of accounts, thereafter torn to bits by dissatisfied orgiastic women -- Maenads -- which seems to me a great metaphor/example for the limits of pop-style celebrity adoration... This is, sadly, not in the opera.) Similarly Euridice's antics on the ascent perhaps take their cue from her "jealousy vs. love" lines in the libretto's final scene and her previous repeated invocation of the proper forms of love.

I might perhaps prefer a darker whole, with an innocently crushed Euridice and a more awe-inspiring Amor, but I'm not sure that would be as faithful to the piece. And besides, the shifting and clashing modes and moods here give great scope for Morris' engrossing and enlivening dance work.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.