This Utterly Refreshing ‘Orfeo ed Euridice’ Is Both Mythic and Modern

Mark Morris’ Met production is more suggestive than specific in ways that make it feel timeless.

Opera performers on a large stage
Orfeo with his guitar. Ken Howard / Met Opera

‘Well, wasn’t that just delightful?’ is seldom the response to the typically tragic tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. It’s a sad song usually, but we can’t seem to stop singing it, from Hades to Hadestown. But this season’s revival of Mark Morris’ 2007 production of Orfeo ed Euridice flips the usual frown around, taking Gluck’s zippy score and turning it into something utterly refreshing.

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In an episode from Mad Men (another excellent piece of art dating from 2007), Roger Sterling says it is particularly American to want a “tragedy with a happy ending.” Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice might be a good candidate for an American favorite, given that’s exactly what it is. We start at a funeral and end at something like a wedding: a celebration of love. Orpheus loses the girl, regains her, loses her again, and (in this version) gets her back. Even the saddest moments are tempered. Eurydice, instead of wandering in the barren mists of the underworld, is found in Elysium amongst the heroes. It’s hard not to think that it might not be too bad if she were to stay there, instead of returning to the land of the living.

An opera performer in khakis, a pink shirt and small feathered wings
Elena Villalón as Amore. Ken Howard / Met Opera

Mark Morris’s production is both mythic and modern, more suggestive than specific in ways that make it feel timeless. It still packs plenty of punch nearly two decades on. It also hearkens back to that pre-crash spirit, where directors made more of a point to use the Met stage to its full capacity. Amore (Elena Villalón) descends, ascends, re-descends and re-ascends from one hundred feet above the stage; a seemingly never-ending staircase flies down from the ceiling and through the floor and then back up with Orfeo climbing the steps; the stage revolves from the early vision of a panoptical underworld with shades wearing disparate historical garb (my favorite: a guy in a slim-cut 1960s suit and round spectacles next to a Tudor prince) and transforms into an iridescent black cave complete with glittery stalactites for the climactic scenes as the heroes walk out of hell.

Morris’s production also distinguishes itself with its liberal use of dancers from Morris’s own dance company. They are almost always onstage, visually commenting on the action or acting as the souls of the underworld and lend vitality. One motif, a motion of presentation that looks like the dancers are offering an invisible box to the audience, recurs throughout and is eventually passed to the singers. It captures the spirit of generosity nicely, seeming to symbolize Orfeo offering his song in exchange for Euridice’s return. The dancers are woven so thoroughly into the fabric of the opera that it’s hard to remember that not every production of Orfeo ed Euridice integrates dance so thoughtfully or with such charm and vigor.

Dancers arabesque on a large stage
Dancers in Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice.” Ken Howard / Met Opera

Gluck’s score, here conducted by pinch-hitter J. David Jackson, stepping in for Christian Curnyn, who pulled out due to illness, was crisp, breezy, and energizing. It’s a triumph of simplicity and satisfying in the manner of a pillow flipped to the cool side. No number overstays its welcome; everything flows.

Even Isaac Mizrahi’s costumes have (almost) come back around to fashionable—there are some low-rise jeans in the crowd that wouldn’t be out of place on a college student. Orfeo looks a little bit like a country singer, with a glittery guitar strap and rhinestone blazer. The final ballet, where all the previously dun-clad dancers emerge in bedazzled technicolor versions of their former outfits is a little bit silly and a little bit inspired. Love is the great bedazzler.

A male opera performer holds out his hands while singing
Anthony Roth Costanzo as Orfeo. Ken Howard / Met Opera

The bulk of the opera is reserved for Orfeo himself, who sings aria after aria culminating in the major-key masterpiece, “Che faró senza Euridice.” Here, countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo displayed his full, mellow voice and deft touch with ornamentation to moving effect, capping off a sterling performance full of feeling and warmth. He sounded wonderful all night, but “Che faró” was the pitch-perfect combination of emotional immediacy and unfussy, grounded technique; the final theme was sung with quiet devastation, more beautiful for still sounding easy.

The rest of the small principal cast were knockouts as well. Soprano Elena Villalón made a strong debut last night as Amore, who wears a pink polo shirt, khakis and small wings as he explains to Orfeo the terms of the deal (he may not look back at her until they’re back above the Underworld or even explain what’s happening). Villalón had a smooth, easygoing soprano and a lot of attitude as this cherubic trickster.

Soprano Ying Fang as Euridice made a huge impression in her comparatively brief stage time. It’s easy to feel frustrated with poor Euridice, who certainly can’t know her myth even though we do,  but in Fang’s hands the character emerges as a self-possessed woman who won’t be going anywhere with a spouse who suddenly refuses to look at her or explain anything. Her sadness and confusion seemed utterly reasonable, and Fang’s luscious, plaintive soprano added depth to the character and made her profoundly sympathetic in her pain.

A man leads a woman in a white gown by the hand
Ying Fang as Euridice with Anthony Roth Costanzo. Ken Howard / Met Opera

Thanks to Fang and Costanzo, the reunion of our heroes at the end felt earned; their shared devotion and Euridice’s self-respect made it clear why Orfeo would defy death itself to get her back. The final ballet scene elicited smiles and chuckles of delight, especially as Villalón blew kisses at the assembled shades from her perch atop the shoulders of four now-sparkly dancers.

Basking in the pinpricks of light glinting from Love’s pink polo shirt, I couldn’t deny it; I wanted them to sing it again.

Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice is at the Metropolitan Opera through June 8.

This Utterly Refreshing ‘Orfeo ed Euridice’ Is Both Mythic and Modern