The Orpheus Fiasco
Or, How Not Even Extensive Nudity Could Save This Opera
Jesse Richards -October 17, 1998

Last week, I and a small group of friends went to the New York City Opera's Orfeo ed Euridice. Based on the Greek myth of Orpheus, the opera was visually exciting, emotionally moving, spectacularly orchestrated and completely ridiculous.

If you're not familiar with the opera, there are a few things you should know. First of all, yes, it is in Italian (a simultaneous translation appears above the stage). Second, the stereotype of opera being long and slow-moving is true. With that in mind, standard characterizations do not apply. That is, comparing the opera to a play or movie doesn't work.

The non-experienced opera-goer like me might find himself thinking, due to the stage and actors and singing, that an opera should be equitable with a play. Not necessarily true. And, as we found out, Orfeo in particular didn't fit into these expectations. If it were a play, it would have sucked. If it were a movie, it would have sucked on a cosmic scale. I won't even go into "Orpheus: The animated series."

What Orfeo ed Euridice did do positively, however, is reinforce the often-ignored fact that operas are not a type of play, but an entire genre of art within themselves, as comparable to poetry as to theater.

There were many good points to the production, and overall, I enjoyed myself. The play had great aesthetic ideas. At one point, it is dark until a blinding light dawns on the stage and silhouettes a dozen naked dancers. The backdrops were huge, and realistic yet stylized creatively. The only props on stage were rocks, which were as artistic as rocks can probably get. They were incorporated into the choreography well, though. Speaking of which, the movements and dancing were well orchestrated. The backup people were synchronized, as if they were one person. The singing was good, although they could have been butchering the Italian for all I knew. The music was spectacular, even though the largest portion of it was depressing. And the opera itself was brief as operas go, lasting only 90 minutes, with no intermission.

The artistic choreography and the repetition of lines is what brings to mind Orfeo's comparison to emotional poetry. This opera was meant to explore certain moods and emotions, perhaps even more than it was meant to tell a narrative. As the City Opera puts it, "Gluck's [the composer] operatic retelling of the Orpheus legend probes the depths of human emotion." It distilled the myth to its core, becoming an exploration of archetypes as well as looking at powerful themes of loss, despair, and the mystery of the afterlife.

Keeping in mind my overall enjoyment of the production, Orfeo was still disastrous and several aspects were ludicrous. The reason it would not work cinematically was its streamlinedness: there were barely three scenes. All of the lines were repeated ad nauseam, so that there were only a few paragraphs of text being sung for an hour and a half. Here's a quick example I made up (translated from hypothetical Italian):

Orpheus (crying): Oh, Euridice, why did you have to die? Boy, I'm really bummed about this.

Backup mourners: Oh, why did she have to die? Orpheus is bummed now. Why did Euridice have to die? We are all bummed, all of us. Why?

To show how the opera deviates from the legend, a quick summary of the myth itself: Orpheus and Euridice are young lovers in ancient Greece. On their wedding day, Euridice is bitten by a snake and dies. Orpheus, the famous lyre player, is so stricken with grief that the gods allow him to go to Hades and get her, on one condition: he must not look at her until they are out of the underworld, and must not tell her why. At the last moment, he gives in, turns around, and she is gone forever. Then, if I'm not mistaken, he is torn to pieces by a ravaging orgy of harpies, leaving him decapitated and so unable to play the lyre. Everyone is pretty much miserable forever, except for the gods, who laugh at the foolishness of man like they usually do.

So, you'd think that would spell out tragedy, right? Not in this opera. In this version: Orpheus, understandably sad thanks to Euridice's death, sings his way through the rock field of suicidal mourners. Amore pops up and tells him to go to the underworld. Orpheus sings his way through the rock field of demons. Orpheus reaches a heaven-like place to find Euridice. Orpheus sings his way through the rock field of naked people. Euridice whines for half an hour. Orpheus gives in, looks at her, and she dies again. And here's the kicker: Amore pops up again and brings her back to life! Everyone's happy! The gods rejoice! Both Orpheus and Euridice sing their way through the rock field of dancing, happy people!

But, somehow, the opera is still trying to be a tragedy. As was mentioned before, the opera can work well on a poetic, emotional level. These emotions are brought out through the slow pace of the opera and the repetition of lines, emphasizing Orpheus's despair, and later, his dilemma. But these emotions are trivialized by the trite ending! The narrative is lacking because it eliminates interesting, potentially-character developing scenes and drags out the few scenes left. Simplifying is good, but this was oversimplified - for example, there are only three characters, plus 10 dancers. Take away the impact of its poetry, the depth that is missing from the narrative, and the only things worthwhile left in Orfeo are the tangible stimulants - the dancers, music, and gratuitously naked people.

A third problem, stereotypical characterization, is apparent alongside the elimination of scenes and the grossly happy ending. Orpheus himself is not likable. Since we don't see him before his mourning period, we have no idea what he's really like. The character is supposed to be mythically courageous, but that doesn't come across here. The guy's just annoying. Even worse is Euridice. It's beyond me why anyone would be in love with her, let alone have a love so powerful that it appeals to the gods. First appearing when Orpheus finds her in the rock field of naked people, she is not grateful at his rescue but critical of his averted gaze. And not just critical, but whiny. When you can tell it's whining in a language you know nothing about, it's bad. Not only does she complain endlessly - but she does it in hell! You'd think she'd be anxious to get out of there. And she doubts Orpheus from the get-go - seriously, there is no trust in that relationship. Her annoying attitude and final temptation of Orpheus's gaze reinforce not archetypes but stereotypes, most notably of women as temptresses reminiscent of Eve. With modern-speak added but strikingly little other deviation, a telling summary of the third quarter of the opera reveals this:

Orpheus: Euridice! I found you! Let's get out of here - this place is, well, hell.

Euridice: Wait a minute - why aren't you looking at me?

Orpheus (remember, he can't tell her why): Uh, no reason. Let's go!

Euridice (sits down on, you guessed it, a rock): We're not going anywhere until you tell me what's going on. Can't you at least look at me?

Orpheus: Euridice, I love you more than anything. I can tell you no more. Have faith in me!

Euridice: It's because I'm fat, isn't it? Are you saying I'm fat?

Other things were odd in Orfeo, like the happy dancers at the end who toss a skeleton onto a blanket repeatedly (Are they happy because they finally put clothes on? And whose skeleton is that anyway? Ugh.) But overall it was a fun experience, in a Mystery Science Theater 3000 kind of way. You get to hear some classically beautiful music, and wonder if heaven is really filled with naked people on rocks. The fact that Orfeo is screwed up on several levels should not prohibit you from seeing it, or other opera for that matter. But don't go alone - the true highlight of the evening turned out to be making fun of Orfeo with my friends on the way home.