As Gluck’s Mythic Hero, a Mezzo-Soprano Takes Command With Bolts of Melody

Stephanie Blythe
The New York Times

With each performance the American mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe gives, it becomes increasingly apparent that a once-in-a-generation opera singer has arrived.

Ms. Blythe’s latest triumph came on Friday night at the Metropolitan Opera: a vocally commanding and deeply poignant portrayal of Orfeo in a revival of Mark Morris’s 2007 production of Gluck’s sublime masterpiece “Orfeo ed Euridice.” This was Ms. Blythe’s first performance of Orfeo, a touchstone trouser role for many mezzo-sopranos, and she already owns it.

Returning to the podium from the production premiere, James Levine elicits an articulate and majestic performance of this landmark work, presented here in its original 1762 version, running a compact 90 minutes without break. The rising lyric-coloratura soprano Danielle de Niese is lovely, vulnerable and vocally refined as Euridice, Orfeo’s beloved wife.

Yet this is Ms. Blythe’s show, as Mr. Levine acknowledged during curtain calls when he prodded her to take an extra solo bow to acknowledge the ecstatic ovation.

An opera singer determined to have a long career must analyze the nature of her voice and make sensible repertory choices. But Ms. Blythe seems able to sing anything. In recent years at the Met she adapted her powerhouse voice to the florid demands of Handel with an exquisite account of Eduige in “Rodelinda,” gave a vocally chilling performance as Ulrica in Verdi’s “Ballo in Maschera” and was an indomitable Fricka in Wagner’s “Walküre.”

Orfeo might not seem a natural choice for a singer whose voice is a force of nature. The production was conceived with the elegant Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in mind as Orfeo. When she died in 2006, the role was reassigned to the countertenor David Daniels, who gave an impassioned and sensitive performance.

In crucial ways Ms. Blythe resembles Hunt Lieberson, whose singing seemed a miraculous amalgam of voice, sound, color, text and expression. Similarly, in Ms. Blythe’s Orfeo there is no separation between vocal and dramatic gesture. Ms. Blythe’s power is such an intrinsic component of her voice that she can concentrate on singing with lyricism, intimacy, volatility or whatever the moment calls for and let her sound take care of itself. Even during fortissimo outbursts her voice is rich and beautiful.

From the opening scene, a gravely beautiful chorus of nymphs and shepherds lamenting Euridice’s death, Ms. Blythe could easily have sent Orfeo’s anguished cries of “Euridice” soaring over the chorus and orchestra. Instead, trusting in the rich carrying power of her sound, she called to her beloved with a subdued intensity that expressed real and wrenching pain.

And when Orfeo, tired of wallowing in grief, determines to storm the underworld and retrieve his wife, Ms. Blythe sang with fearless impetuosity. Gluck’s heightened recitative and bolts of melody came across as if Ms. Blythe had been seized with reckless resolve and was making the music up on the spot.

Ms. Blythe commands the stage and though she has a big body, moves with agility and grace, exudes charisma and conveys piercing emotional subtleties with every glance and phrase. Dressed in a long gray coat, vest and slacks, her hair trimmed short and a guitar slung over her shoulder, Ms. Blythe embodies Orfeo, the mythic poet-singer whose music had magical powers to charm all listeners. When Orfeo approaches the gates of Hades, and furies and ghosts try to bar the determined husband’s path, their ominous choral cries of “No” seemed impotent against Ms. Blythe’s unrattled singing of Gluck’s steadfast melody.

In this fanciful and affecting production, which Mr. Morris both directed and choreographed, a roster of dancers in casual modern dress, courtesy of the designer Isaac Mizrahi, portray the various nymphs, ghosts, furies and heroes who encounter the opera’s three characters. The chorus is turned into a cavalcade of historical figures who watch and comment on the unfolding drama from a three-tiered, semicircular set, designed by Allen Moyer.

It is hard to resist trying to identify the witnesses. I spotted (I think) both Queen Elizabeths, Gandhi, Lincoln, Lillian Russell, Jimi Hendrix and a New York Yankee (perhaps that opera buff Joe Torre). Yet it is touching to see these historical heavyweights leaning over railings as they follow the plight of the mythical lovers. And the chorus sang splendidly.

The soprano Heidi Grant Murphy, as Amor, the god of love, who facilitates Orfeo’s journey to the underworld, descends from on high, suspended by wires. Looking like an impish Ellen DeGeneres, she sings with perky vitality and bright tone.

Ms. de Niese is marvelous during the crucial scene in a dark labyrinth, when Orfeo, following Amor’s orders, tries to lead Euridice to the upper world without looking at her. Ms. de Niese’s clear, shimmering voice blends wondrously with Ms. Blythe’s darker, heavier tones. Ms. Blythe sings Orfeo’s great aria of lament, “Che farò senza Euridice?,” magnificently, though I missed hearing the more elaborate ending Gluck fashioned for later productions.

Who knows what roles Ms. Blythe might take on next. I would hear her sing absolutely anything. How about a new opera written expressly for this exciting artist who is just entering her prime?

“Orfeo ed Euridice” runs through Jan. 31 at the Metropolitan Opera, (212) 362-6000,