There’s a simple and almost-sublime passage in Mark Morris’s dance-packed production of Orfeo ed Euridice at the Metropolitan Opera when the dancers, dressed in sunny costumes by Isaac Mizrahi, break into traveling pyramids. Two dancers carry a third on their arms while moving briskly across the stage, and the third dancer appears to soar. Others, meanwhile, dance in gender-blind pairings, jumping and galloping before switching to a supporting role so their partners can have a turn at the fun. In a nod to court dancing, they hold their arms high in the air and circle one another, but Morris throws in stomps, hops, and side kicks to make it all thoroughly modern. The gods — in this production a range of historical figures including Queen Elizabeth I, Abraham Lincoln, and Hiawatha — watch and smile approvingly from above.
This scene occurs at the end of the opera, when Orfeo has just returned from the underworld with Euridice, his newly resurrected wife. Earlier, Orfeo descends to the realm of the dead and rescues his bride with the permission of Amore (portrayed here with a pixie hairdo, a pink polo shirt, and khaki capris). Amore gives Orfeo two rules: He must not look at Euridice, or explain to her why he avoids her gaze. If he does, she will die again, this time forever. Orfeo’s yearning for his wife ultimately trumps his powers of restraint, and in a moment of weakness he returns her gaze, killing her immediately. He decides to take his own life and join her for eternity, but Amore stops him and returns him and his bride to the land of the living. Suicidal impulse after a lover’s death is a romantic archetype, even something of a cliché, but Morris’s choreography forces us to see the depth of that love — and believe in it.
I say this scene of revelry is almost sublime because the unpolished dancers don’t quite pull it off, even if Morris’s intent is clear enough. This also happens to be the choreography’s only moment of triumph: The rest falls flat. The opera opens with the cast in mourning for Euridice, with the dancers seated on a long bench using their arms to convey weeping. The hackneyed execution, however, makes it seem more like modern dance parody. When Orfeo first arrives in the underworld, the dancers form a chain, each dancer grasping onto the next and struggling to maintain his hold. The chain soon dissolves into a huddle of what I assume are supposed to be lost, tortured souls, but the awkward movements and collisions make it seem more like bumper cars. The dancing never lives up to Gluck’s score. It would be interesting to see whether better dancers — those in Morris’s own group — would make much of a difference.
The opera lasts only 89 minutes, so at least we don’t have to wait long for this final joyful scene. In the opera’s very final seconds, as the principal characters and chorus sing the praises of love, the dancers unveil a shockingly simple step: a side-shuffle. It’s an irreverent choice on Morris’s part, and the step requires almost no technical skill, but it still fits. It’s what any of us might do when overcome with joy, and watching, we can’t help but smile.