An Emergency Maestro Retrieves Met’s ‘Orfeo’ From Opera Underworld

Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo as Orfeo and soprano Ying Fan as Euridice in Gluck’s ‘Orfeo ed Euridice’ at the Metropolitan Opera. (Photos: Ken Howard/Met Opera)

NEW YORK — The Metropolitan Opera’s late-season revival of Mark Morris‘ compellingly idiosyncratic Orfeo ed Euridice — like the plot of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s seminal azione teatrale (“theatrical action”) itself — experienced a sudden unexpected loss: British conductor Christian Curnyn, a Baroque specialist who’s earned good notices elsewhere and worked before (including Partenope at New York City Opera and Tolomeo at Glimmerglass a dozen years back) with the revival’s popular star, countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo. The company announced subsequently that “due to illness” Curnyn would be replaced at all performances (through June 8) by his cover, assistant conductor J. David Jackson.

Anthony Roth Costanzo: vulnerability and expressiveness.

The experienced Jackson pulled the chestnuts out of the fire and deserves major credit. A veteran of opera houses in Brussels, Moscow, and Toronto who has been on the Met staff since 2001, he has led strong scheduled performances of such difficult scores as Hänsel und GretelThe Queen of Spades, Simon Boccanegra, and Porgy and Bess.

Although he would have had no time for rehearsals with ballet dancers or chorus to adjust tempos, he conducted Gluck’s orchestral music with dispatch and confidence. The cast’s two young sopranos — the vocally and visually luminous Ying Fang, offering her finest and most verbally urgent Met work yet as Euridice, and the young Texas-born, Frankfurt-based Elena Villalón, making a fine company debut as a likable, freshly lyrical Amore — performed very strongly, with Jackson in alert support. Harpsichordist Jonathan C. Kelly and the excellent harpist Hannah Cope, major participants here, both delivered.

Things proved more complicated for Costanzo, who as Orfeo shoulders about 80 percent of the piece’s solo vocalism, much of it in tandem with the chorus. Again, whatever adjustments in pacing and accentuation needed to be made to the ensemble work were perforce impossible to achieve in this first performance. Succeeding shows should allow Jackson, Costanzo, the dancers, and the chorus to pull everything together.

I witnessed Costanzo’s impressive, first-ever Orfeo in 2011 at Palm Beach Opera opposite two highly promising young artists, Nadine Sierra and Irene Roberts, who have also attained international success. The vulnerability and expressiveness he brought to the bereaved husband whose salvation lies in his art remains in play today, even in the rock-star-with-guitar guise of Morris’ conception. In 2011 in a much smaller venue, the countertenor’s very personal tone had less volume but also less bright edge on full-voiced top notes than a dozen years of international activity have bestowed on it.

Soprano Elena Villalón as Amore

David Daniels and his Orfeo successors — powerhouse mezzo-sopranos Stephanie Blythe and Jamie Barton— offered more ample voices in Gluck’s music, but Costanzo proved far and away a more credible stage presence, a more nuanced verbal actor and — crucial in this dance-driven staging — a far more graceful counterpart to Morris’ dancers. The soft singing had a lovely liquidity, and he offered both fine trills and well-considered and expressive ornamentation in strophic numbers.

Oddly, what worked least well was the score’s most famous aria, which Costanzo’s often has programmed in other contexts: “Che farò senza Euridice,” Orfeo’s heart-broken lament, improbably in C major. The second strophe achieved haunting limpidity, but the two testing upward leaps in the last turned angular, and — for the first time in my experience — this expert singer audibly ran out of breath in the final phrase. The overall visual and emotional power of the interpretation as witnessed live garnered him a long ovation anyway. By the next broadcast, one hopes the radio listeners will hear a smoother traversal.

Orfeo‘s 1762 original version premièred in Vienna. Gluck himself oversaw several revisions — of language, vocal casting, and edition; Hector Berlioz’s 1859 treatment devised for mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot-Garçia all but standardized the use of a mezzo or contralto in the title role. The Met’s rather checkered history with this opera began in 1885 in German. The protagonist was Viennese Marianne Brandt (1842-1921), a long-voiced contralto whose other Met firsts extended to Beethoven’s Leonore and all three Brünnhildes. Gluck’s opera appeared in Italian in 1891-5 with star mezzo-sopranos (Giulia RavogliSofia ScalchiMarie Brema) but in what New York Times critic Richard Aldrich called “rather shabby” performances.

In addition, since the old Met’s contract with its restaurants specified income-generating intermissions, Orfeo often got improbably paired with Cavalleria rusticanaPagliacci, or Massenet’s La navarraise. The first artistically serious presentation came in 1909 under Arturo Toscanini: star singers (Louise Homer as Orfeo, full-voiced Verdi/Wagner soprano Johanna Gadski as Euridice) and well-prepared and danced ballets, so much a component of this work. Despite his self-publicized fidelity to composers’ intentions, Toscanini extrapolated several numbers from other Gluck works, including “Divinités du Styx” from Alceste in place of the bravura aria ending Act One. Orfeo (and indeed Gluck’s sublime 1777 Armide, which has never returned) vanished when Toscanini quit the company in 1914.

In a staging by Mark Morris, the Met’s ‘Orfeo’ is dance-driven. Isaac Mizrahi did the costume design.

Orfeo resurfaced in 1936’s low-priced summer season, staged by the as-yet-to-be locally established George Balanchine and painter Pavel Tchelitchew. Still hitched to Mascagni’s versimo shocker, it featured low-wattage singers heard in the pit while starrier ballet dancers — including Lew Christensen (Orfeo) and William Dollar (Amore) — enacted the drama onstage. A new 1940-62 staging restored star mezzo-sopranos (including Kerstin Thorborg and Risë Stevens in the title roles) to the boards but retained high visibility choreography for important dancers such as Ruthanna BorisAlicia MarkovaViolette Verdy, and pathbreaking Black star Arthur Mitchell.

Orfeo needed refurbishment in the new house, but 1970’s new production for Grace Bumbry and Gabriella Tucci under Richard Bonynge won widespread condemnation for sets and musical style, which even apter casting (Marilyn Horne and Adriana Maliponte under Charles Mackerras in 1972) couldn’t save. Thereafter, the Met went Orfeo-free for a quarter century. For some reason, this key opera never appeared at New York City Opera, but the Brooklyn Academy of Music imported several versions starring countertenors over the years, including Harry Kupfer’s Komische Oper staging with the photogenic if piercing Jochen Kowalski (1991) and Christopher Hogwood’s poorly conducted effort with the musicianly but bloodless, church-style Michael Chance (1996). All honors went to Christine Brandes’ feisty Amore and — signally — Mark Morris’ work with his terrific dance ensemble, a then-unorthodox group of dancers varied in ethnicity and body type executing characteristic gestures well keyed to the Gluck’s music.

Anthony Roth Costanzo’s Orfeo is a guitar-strumming rock star in the Met production.

This success may have led the Met to ask Morris to rethink the work for a new 2007 staging set to star the superb tragedienne Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Alas, she died prematurely the year before, and conductor James Levine strayed out of his stylistic comfort zone. But mellifluous, legato-based Daniels as the Met’s first male Orfeo, plus Morris’ work, expanded in scope and perhaps more ironically deployed but still musically sensitive, drew wide interest. The dancers — in the outer “frame” acts what I’d term “faux casual” attire by Isaac Mizrahi (his white garb for Act Two’s Elysian Fields pleases much more) — are always compelling to watch, and in this year’s trio of singers they meet, finally, artists who move well enough not to lose one’s focus while the dancing’s in full swing. The highlight of the choreography is the joyously delivered start of the final scene’s celebratory suite. But anyone interested in musically sophisticated integration of dance into opera — one of Gluck’s avowed goals — needs to witness this staging.

Allen Moyer’s tall, three-tiered set, on which the splendid chorus sits and stands witnessing and intervening in the action almost throughout, provokes more mixed feelings. It certainly grabs attention, and Mizrahi and Morris went to town in outfitting the choristers as recognizable iconic personages: Sgt. Pepper’s-style, the eminent dead of the ages. Inescapably, one’s eye seeks to identify them: Tudor monarchs, American statesmen, Harriet Tubman, Mae West, Mahatma Gandhi, and scores more. The choral movement, only partially unison, seemed rather under-rehearsed at the premiere. But the 2007 staging marked chorus master Donald Palumbo’s Met debut, and he leaves the company (having covered himself and his forces in glory) after this intriguing last revival of the season.