Nevertheless, this piece was not a ballet but an azione teatrale, a kind of mini-opera that had been popular in Vienna for many years. Only the dances - mainly slow and quick minuets - would have been danced.
It did not really matter that the Morris concept was non-traditional. The question was, did it work? At times the effect was captivating; in the half light, the Furies seemed really to shout "No!" during their wild dance, though of course the words came from the chorus at the side of the stage. At most times the dancers were merely an irritant. "Che puro ciel" is a serene vision of a sunlit, empty sky; the energetic eurhythmics of the dancers destroyed the effect utterly.
The best thing was the orchestra. Christopher Hogwood has assembled for the American Handel & Haydn Society a tasty band of authentic instruments, and they seem to have developed a style all their own, without the self- conscious mannerisms of European authentic groups. The singers were more uneven. It is never going to be a good idea to give castrato parts to countertenors; Gaetano Guadagnias Orfeo was a true alto, very rich and expressive at the bottom, but Michael Chance's voice is upside-down, as it were; it fades into a gasping void in the low register and swells unnervingly at the top, so that much of the vital drama is inaudible.
Dana Hanchard was a small-toned, but intense and thrilling Euridice; her acting was thoroughly convincing and affecting. The delightful Christine Brandes saw Amor as a comic role; her tone was colourful, her words crystal clear and her gestures snappy.
Gluck strove for "beautiful simplicity" and Mark Morris's staging of Orfeo is lovingly faithful to that wish. Adrianne Lobel's neo-classical design, consisting of clean curves of white net curtains, a Greek couch and two podiums is made to serve for Thrace, Hades and Elysium with the help of Michael Chybowski's lighting. Morris's dancers in the first act are the wedding guests who suddenly find themselves at a funeral. Their hands are like birds fluttering their escape. They enact the libretto with all the directness Noverre, pioneer of clear mime and ballet d'action, could have wished. The only point at which song and dance tread on each other's toes is at the end of the first scene when Michael Chance's aria railing at the cruel gods is mirrored by an agonised male soloist in a black chiffon peplum on the far side of the stage.
In Act 2 Orpheus descends to Hades and confronts the Manes lined up in dark muddy tunics, their angry shadows looming likeghosts. They huddle around Orpheus as if trying to muscle the exquisite sound of his singing with their bodies. Chance turns his voice up and they fall back, blasted by the power of the music.
A set that served for the torments of Hell is transformed into Elysium by a blaze of sunny light and the happy heroes now draped in filmy white and gold leap for joy, heads tilted to catch the birdsong of the score. You can understand Eurydice's reluctance to leave. Her long look back at the Elysian fields at the end of Act 2 is almost more affecting than the more traditional emotional highlights of the third act. The couple's first quarrel after her return from the dead is handled like a recital with husband and wife addressing the audience from the front and her second death is an understated affair, a brief hiccup en route to the lasting bliss of the happy ending.
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