In Gluck at the Met, voices align with dance-centric staging

United StatesUnited States Gluck, Orfeo ed Euridice: Soloists, Chorus, Orchestra of Metropolitan Opera / Mark Wigglesworth (conductor), Metropolitan Opera House, New York. 20.10.2019. (HS)

Hei-Kyung Hong (Euridice) and Jamie Barton (Orfeo) (c) Ken Howard/Met Opera

Production — Mark Morris
Set designer — Allen Moyer
Costume designer — Isaac Mizrahi
Lighting designer — James F. Ingalls
Choreographer — Mark Morris

Euridice — Hei-Kyung Hong
Orfeo — Jamie Barton
Amore — Hera Hyesang Park

The glorious voices of mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton and soprano Hei-Kyung Hong, both singing the title roles for the first time, came into their own in Act III of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, when they delivered sublime renditions of the big arias and duet.

The duo’s intertwining created the first transcendent moment on Sunday afternoon, in the first of seven performances at the Metropolitan Opera. Until then there were plenty of fine moments, but the sweet Act III resonance was an unmistakable high point.

These voices share such traits as confident and steady articulation, seamless legato, and ravishing tone. But where Hong (who first sang at the Met in 1984) still floats silvery high notes with the best of them, Barton (who debuted in 2009 as the Second Lady in The Magic Flute) wields a supple, golden mezzo-soprano in roles such as Ježibaba in Rusalka and Adalgisa in Norma.

The duet ‘Vieni, appaga il tuo consorte’ comes when Euridice can’t understand why Orfeo won’t look at her, even as he has rescued her from the underworld. And Orfeo can’t tell her that the god Amore made him promise not to look until they have climbed back to earth.

Thinking this reluctance to look at her means he no longer loves her, she concludes that death would be preferable, and spun out the aria ‘Che fiero momento’ with gorgeous purity of tone. When Orfeo finally turns and looks at Euridice, she dies again, and the furies carry her back down the path. Left alone, Barton delivered a majestic and stunningly plangent ‘Che farò senza Euridice?’ the opera’s most memorable aria.

There was plenty to enjoy in Acts I and II, and all three were performed without a break. At 90 minutes, this is the shortest of the three most often performed tellings of the classic Orpheus tale (the others are Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo and Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld).

Mark Morris’s unique dance-centric staging has not been seen here since its debut in 2007, when David Daniels sang the title role and James Levine conducted. Morris’s choreography and Isaac Mizrahi’s striking modern costumes still establish the characters clearly and make them stand out from 22 busy dancers and 100 members of the Met Chorus.

Three semi-circular tiers in the arena-like set hold the chorus and roll into various forms to create different looks for each scene. Each chorus member was clothed as a different historical character — Abraham Lincoln, Moses, Shakespeare, Sacajawea, Henry VIII, Ella Fitzgerald, and Princess Diana. The dancers, clad in casual modern clothing, executed Morris’s signature moves with verve and — especially appreciated — respect for both the rhythms of Gluck’s score and the emotional swings of the story.

Barton’s Orfeo looked suitably masculine in short combed-back hair and a man’s dark suit and carried a guitar instead of the traditional lyre. Hong’s bridal-white flowing gown made her look as ethereal as her otherworldly pure voice. Amore (Hera Hyesang Park, clad in a pink polo shirt and khakis) descended from the highest elevations above the Met’s proscenium and sang her opening aria, ‘Dalla cetra tua,’ without a hitch.

Conductor Mark Wigglesworth drew persuasive playing from the Met orchestra and a mighty sound from the chorus. In a lovely application of movement that extended beyond the dancers, the chorus echoed Barton’s hand motions in her Act I aria ‘Chiamo il mio ben.’ Barton sang that one well enough, relying on the resonance of her plummy low notes and well-placed legato line rather than trying to infuse the lament with extra emotional weight, but the star turns in Act III felt more fully realized.

The already fine singing should get better after a few more runs through this beautifully crafted early classical-era score. It just took a couple of acts to get rolling Sunday until the big moments finally hit their mark in Act III.

Harvey Steiman

For more about what is on at the Met click here.