I was going to write at length about Mark Morris’ Metropolitan Opera production of Orfeo ed Euridice, but Tony Tommasini has already said most of what I wanted to say. Read what he wrote and you’ll get a good sense of what Morris’ melding of opera and modern dance looked and sounded like. The only thing I want to add is that I found it enthralling but not especially moving, and I think I know why.
It strikes me that this Orfeo is best understood as an ingenious attempt to solve an insoluble problem: how do you make sense of a small-scale opera in a large-scale opera house? As I wrote about the Met in a 1995 essay published in Commentary:
The present-day Metropolitan Opera House, which opened in 1966 as part of Lincoln Center, has 3,788 seats and a 54-foot-square stage opening. Because of the size of the stage and the depth of the hall, every one of the Met’s productions is by definition “spectacular.” The only variable is the style.
A spectacular production of a three-singer opera is a contradiction in terms, and I felt that contradiction operating throughout Orfeo, the same way I do whenever I see an opera at the Met that calls for anything remotely approaching dramatic intimacy. Even nineteenth-century story ballets have a way of getting lost in the Met, whose mammoth proscenium arch swallows up dance instead of setting it off. Modern dance, whose vectors point down, not up, has an even harder time registering in so fundamentally hostile an environment. To be sure, Morris and his designers did a brilliant job of filling the space, and their Orfeo is an absorbing visual experience–but I never got close enough to it, emotionally speaking, to feel anything but admiration.
Now that I’ve spent four years on the aisle as a theater critic, attending two or three performances each week in houses that rarely hold more than a thousand or so people, I find the monstrous scale of the Met to be even more problematic than I did when I was a working critic of music and dance. No doubt that’s one of the reasons why I no longer go there very often. For me, opera is drama or it’s nothing. Its purely musical values can be experienced just as well at home. Yes, I’ve seen some Met productions that made dramatic sense. John Dexter’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, Mark Lamos’ Wozzeck, and Elijah Moshinsky’s Queen of Spades all rank high on my list of unforgettable nights at the theater. But they’re exceptions to a rule that I find increasingly antipathetical.
As for Mark Morris’ Orfeo, it’s…well, spectacular. Which is fine in its way: I like a super-sensational spectacle as much as the next guy. I only wish this one had been accompanied by a more suitable soundtrack.