A staple of the Metropolitan Opera repertory through much of the 20th century, “Orfeo ed Euridice” mysteriously dropped out of sight for the past 35 years. Now it’s returned in a flashy, somewhat cold new production directed and choreographed by Mark Morris and designed by Allen Moyer (“Grey Gardens”), with costumes by Isaac Mizrahi. All three are making their Met debuts, heightening anticipation enough to sell out the entire four-performance run more than a week ago.
One of the greatest singers of her generation, the late mezzo Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who died of cancer in 2006, was originally set to star as “Orfeo.” Had she lived to perform the role in this new production as planned, Gluck’s seminal masterpiece would undoubtedly have had a stronger emotional center. David Daniels, who replaces Lieberson, is certainly the best and most charismatic countertenor currently singing, but he bears the inevitable countertenor handicap: a limited expressive range due to the predominance of head over chest tones.
Gluck’s stately yet psychologically incisive score cries out for more dramatic weight than a countertenor can provide. The part originally was written for legendary castrato Gaetano Guadagni, and while we will never know what he sounded like, we do know that castrati produced a sound more virile and brilliant than today’s countertenors. What Daniels does bring to the part is his rich voice, sensitive phrasing and appealing stage presence.
“Orfeo ed Euridice” is an opera with more dancing than singing. Its long choreographic stretches leave many opera fans wishing for a fast-forward button. Director-choreographer Mark Morris, who has staged many other productions of this piece elsewhere, deploys his dancers in nervous, sputtering patterns and movements that emphasize chaos over grace, making for an energetic but unfocused effect.
The large Met chorus remains perched in several curved tiers observing the action, much like students in an operating theater. Each member of the chorus is costumed by Mizrahi as a different historical figure: Abraham Lincoln, Evita Peron, Jacqueline Kennedy, William Shakespeare, Mahatma Ghandi and Cleopatra are a few of the most recognizable. Morris has them all singing with meaningless synchronized hand movements — a practice that began with Peter Sellars and Robert Wilson and has now become an annoying operatic cliche.
Moyer’s operating-theater set is actually a fluid construct placed on a turntable, which morphs handily into Hades, Elysium and the Temple of Love. It is well served by James F. Ingalls’ lighting scheme, moving appropriately from Stygian darkness to sharp, sun-washed brilliance.
Latvian soprano Maija Kovalevska makes an exquisite Euridice. Slim and striking in the Anna Netrebko mold, she even sounds a bit like Netrebko, with the same rich Slavic amplitude. Heidi Grant Murphy is an adorably peppy Amor (Cupid), dressed like a club kid with wings and flying down on a wire from the top of the stage. Her bright soubrette sound is cute but not cloying.
Ultimately, however, the profoundly moving opera fails to touch its audience in this production, and the problem cannot be laid entirely at the feet of Daniels and Morris. James Levine, who often prefers slow tempi, seems here to be conducting far too fast. Sections that would have benefited from a more pensive pace seem rushed over in an almost perfunctory manner. In moments like the mournful opening funeral scene, such choices seemed almost perverse.