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Letter from New York, 5-15: Don't Look Back
Morris Takes on Grand Opera: It's Win-Win

By Gus Solomons jr
Copyright 2007 Gus Solomons jr

NEW YORK -- First of all, what a dream cast -- superstar countertenor David Daniels as Orfeo, coloratura powerhouse Maija Kovalevska as Euridice, and perky, comic Heidi Grant Murphy as a feisty Amor! The Metropolitan Opera's splendid new production of Gluck's "Orfeo ed Euridice" also marked the opera-directing debut at the Met of choreographer Mark Morris. It's also the first time in 50 years that a choreographer has directed there. The last was George Balanchine. A terrific team of collaborators -- set designer Allen Moyer, lighting by James F. Ingalls, and costumes by Isaac Mizrahi -- magnify Morris's oh-so-musical choreography and unconventional staging. May 12 was the last performance of its premiere season.

Though Gluck's short three-act opera is vintage mid-18th century, this production features a high-tech architectural set with the chorus positioned on three banks of curved balconies that rise about 50 feet in the air. The chorus members are dressed in costumes from every imaginable period, as if Mizrahi had invaded costume storage and picked a character from every period in history -- or from every opera in the repertoire. From the balconies they witness the modern cast below them in modern dress -- clothing that ranges from dressy gowns to casual wear to downtown grunge, all in mourning shades of gray and black. Orfeo wears a black suit with an open-collared sport shirt that reveals a triangle of bare chest. Morris's company of 18, supplemented by four dancers from the Met Opera Ballet, form a dancing chorus, paralleling the singing one. The dancers illustrate the emotions of Gluck's music with pantomimic gesturing. As Orfeo sings his grief over the loss of his new bride Euridice to a snake's bite, they stretch their arms in grief, lean on each other's shoulders, and move in solemn, courtly patterns.

The scale and budget of grand opera allows Morris to dream big, and on Moyer's colossal set on the mammoth Met stage, he does. Amor -- looking like Ellen Degeneres in a pink T-shirt with wings attached, green jeans, and white sneakers -- descends on wires from 70 feet in the air to the stage, singing full throttle. When Orfeo departs on his journey to the Underworld to retrieve his lover, the three-ton balconies split in the middle to provide an opening for him to exit.

Then, the massive arcs roll parallel to each other -- propelled by a crew of visible stagehands -- to form the Gates of Hades, where Furies and Ghosts bar Orfeo's progress. After he placates them with his magical singing and guitar playing, a gigantic stairway descends from above, plunges through the floor, and then rises again to reveal Orfeo, wending his way downward toward the Elysian Fields, where all the gray furies have become Heroes and Heroines in all-white versions of exactly their same outfits.

At the start of Act III, as Orfeo leads Euridice back toward the upper world, the outer ring of the stage begins to revolve; the rear wall rotates to the front revealing a diagonally ascending tunnel cut through jagged rock. Here, about halfway up, nearly 30 feet above the stage floor, Euridice delivers her grand aria begging Orfeo to look at her, and of course when he weakens and looks, she's whisked away in the arms of four black-clad fellows. There too, Orfeo sings his familiar grief-stricken aria, "Che faro senza Euridice?" (How can I live without her?). Amor comes to the rescue, staying his suicidal hand and the wall revolves back to its original place, given a final shove by the butch Amor in another touch of Morris's irrepressible humor.

In the vibrantly sunlit Temple of Love, all the dancers, now in Technicolor versions of their outfits, dance a joyous -- and choreographically brilliant -- suite in celebration of the lovers' final reunion after Euridice's sojourn in Hades. Here, Morris is at his creative best filling the stage with cascades of motion. Groups of fours and eights doing repeated folk-like figures -- folding in and out of each other's arms, lightly lifting their partners, gender non-specifically, sashaying intricately -- gradually accumulate into full unisons.

Morris has omitted extra music that was introduced in an early French version of the work and eliminated a couple of momentum-retarding ballet numbers, so the entire opera comes in at a concise 95 intermission-less minutes. James Levine's brilliant conducting brings an entrancing buoyancy to the score.

Originally, Orfeo was to be sung by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who recently passed away from cancer; the production is dedicated to her memory. It would have been fascinating to see females in both lead roles as lovers, and it surely would have delighted Morris's sensibility. But Morris makes his political statement about sexuality anyway by making sure that genders couple indiscriminately. In one passage for three couples, they consist of a woman in a man's suit with a male partner, a taller woman with a shorter man, and a mixed race man and woman -- all bases covered.

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