When the curtains rise at the Metropolitan Opera, a hush befalls the audience and the magic begins. For the Christoph Willibald von Gluck opera Orfeo ed Euridice, which tells the tale of a Greek poet who descends to the underworld to bring his wife back to earth, the enchantment is conjured up by the celebrated modern dance choreographer Mark Morris.
The main cast is comprised of three characters: Orfeo (mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe), Euridice (Danielle de Niese), and Amor (Ying Huang), but nearly 100 chorus members tower over the stage on a grand elevated platform. The group is comprised of historical figures ranging from John Lennon to Moses, Nefertiti to Margot Fonteyn, and everyone in between—Abraham Lincoln, Leonardo da Vinci, Truman Capote, and Gandhi. Isaac Mizrahi’s costumes are impeccably elaborate, and even from far away one can tell who’s who. And the 22 dancers who represent the various nymphs, ghosts, furies, and heroes who encounter the opera’s three characters act as a non-vocal chorus who move the opera along schematically.
The opera begins with the entire cast in mourning as Orfeo laments the loss of his wife, evidently bitten by a snake. The chorus’s requiem of grandiose sighs and moans fills the stage with lyrical devastation; the dancers dance in earnest sadness: at times their large arm sweeps to the sky seem to ask why, at other times they circle the center of the stage with eyes cast down, peering into the underworld through Euridice’s grave.
When Amor appears from the heavens (literally floating down from the rafters), she is wearing a pink polo shirt, khakis, and tennis shoes to give Orfeo the deal: he can proceed to the underworld and bring Euridice back, but he can never look at her. Orfeo decides to take the plunge, and when he does, we meet Euridice. The stage shifts during this progression to add an element of anxiety to their reunion: dancers dart in and out of a grandstand as it separates in two, creating a pathway for Orfeo to enter. When the two meet, Orfeo doesn’t look at her, but leads her up a staircase that has formed as the entire stage rotates, revealing a cavernous structure with the staircase ascending from the underworld back to earth.
Though the score and singing are phenomenal in this opera (Blythe’s voice is powerful and unwavering), to a dance enthusiast the choreography and dance ensemble stand out the most. The ensemble wears three versions of the same costume through the acts. Again, Mizrahi deserves applause for the subtle changes in costume design that mean so much to the story, but also for creating a cool, contemporary look for the dancers. First they appear in muted blues, browns, and grays; then in ethereal whites; and finally in bedazzled bright colors. The costumes are casual: hoodies and Capri pants, wrap dresses and Oxford tees. The dancers’ moods change with each costume switch, and when they perform as an ensemble, or in duets, or in canon. At the end when Orfeo and Euridice are reunited (he was in fact willing to give his life to spend eternity in the underworld with her, and so Amor brings Euridice back to him) the dancers are jubilant and Morris’s choreography reflects that. They leap and bound across the stage, they smile at one another, and the movements are quick, staccato. We have seen the emotional journey Orfeo has gone through with the dancers as movement translators.
Morris is in amazing choreographic company for this piece at the Met, yet he is the first famous dancemaker in more than fifty years to direct there—the last was George Balanchine in 1953 with Igor Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress. Balanchine also staged Orfeo at the Met way back in 1936. And this is far from Morris’s foray into opera direction and choreography; he’s created 14 opera productions, including his critically acclaimed danced opera Dido and Aeneas (1989) and three versions of Orfeo and Euridice. (His first take, Orphee et Euridice, opened in 1988 in the Seattle Opera House; his second premiered in Iowa City in 1996, and later came through New York by way of BAM.) His latest Orfeo premiered at the Met in May of 2007, and on January 31st of this year had its final run for the season.
Emily Macel is an associate editor at Dance Magazine.