Met’s stylish “Orfeo” goes to hell and back in 90 minutes

Mon Oct 21, 2019 at 1:58 pm
Jamie Barton and Hei-Kyung Hong star in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Ken Howard

The Metropolitan Opera revived its production of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice on Sunday afternoon—you read that right. For the first time in its history, the company is performing Sunday matinees this season, hoping to increase attendance by offering audiences a more convenient option. That move appears to be working since  Sunday’s premiere was packed, for a performance of barely 90 minutes.

Gluck’s 1762 drama is just one among many operatic treatments of the classical myth of Orpheus’s journey into the underworld, though this version, by librettist Ranieri de’ Calzabigi, is somewhat bowdlerized. Gluck’s Orfeo, at the invitation of the goddess Amore, goes to retrieve his beloved Euridice from the afterlife, vowing not to look at her until they have returned to the mortal world. Unable to resist her pleading, Orfeo glances at Euridice and she is stolen back into the underworld, only to be delivered again by Amore, who reappears to reward Orfeo’s devotion to love—a tidy bit of mercy nowhere to be found in the ancient sources.

A late-Baroque piece like this will necessarily feel small in a cavernous theater like the Met, and the 2007 production by dance guru Mark Morris wisely does not try to scale it up to fit the stage. The chorus stands on tiered balconies behind the main playing area, in costumes by Isaac Mizrahi from a variety of historical periods, representing famous spirits watching the scene from eternity. Unsurprisingly, Morris’s production is heavily dance-focused, conveying much of the narrative’s atmosphere through movement. Clad in contemporary street clothes, a corps of dancers variously represents nymphs, shepherds, furies, and denizens of Elysium in the opera’s ballet scenes. Morris’s sinewy choreography brilliantly evokes everything from the heavy trod of the underworld’s shades to the final exultation at love’s triumph, even if his violent gestures sometimes feel at odds with the elegance of Gluck’s score.

Jamie Barton’s performance as Orfeo on Sunday stands as the latest in a run of successes at the Met for the American mezzo-soprano. The very bottom of her chest voice sounded a little taxed in what was originally a castrato role; but even then, she sang with a conviction that gave her lower range a certain ferocity. Otherwise, it was simply a joy to listen to her focused, powerful, dusk-hued mezzo. Barton has a gift for breathing emotion into a seemingly uncomplicated line of music, enriching her vocal characterization even in a relatively small phrase. Nowhere was this more apparent than in her sublime rendition of “Che farò senza Euridice?,” full of soft grief as she lamented Euridice’s death a second time.

Though featured in the title, Euridice is a small role as written in Gluck’s opera. Veteran soprano Hei-Kyung Hong sounded pale in Sunday’s performance; she showed tight trills and had a pleasant, soft quality to her voice, but there was not much tone to speak of and she was especially exposed higher up. There was little vocal definition in her rendition of the aria “Che fiero momento,” and while she shaped the preceding recitative beautifully, she lost her pitch when the orchestra faded away.

Hera Hyesang Park was a welcome revelation as Amore, with a bright soprano that penetrates without grating. There was a wry, puckish quality to her interpretation as she embraced the humor of her deus ex machina role. Park maintained her sweet, liquid tone even while being flown in on wires for her first entrance in Act I.

Mark Wigglesworth led a tight, crisp reading of the score, drawing a sunny sound from the pit and a rich, colorful tone from the chorus. His brisk pacing never stifled the music’s natural grace even as it pushed ahead.

Orfeo ed Euridice—or any baroque opera, for that matter—is a difficult work to mount in a modern theater; musically and dramatically, it is far removed from the operas that make up the core of the Met’s rep and for which the house was designed. A performance like this, though, is a model for how to pull off staging such a work, with intelligent theatrical direction and singers who know the style intimately but can nonetheless fill a 3,800-seat barn.

Orfeo ed Euridice runs through November 10 at the Metropolitan Opera.

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