Early in 1961 Kenneth MacMillan choreographed the dances for a revival of Covent Garden Opera’s 1953 production of Gluck’s Orpheus. Frederick Ashton had created the dances for the original, but they had been heavily criticised (“Orpheus strolled down the Stygian ranks as if at a revue”) and a decision was made to commission MacMillan instead.
Kathleen Ferrier who sang Eurydice was seriously ill and could sing only two performances; she died later in the year. The production’s designer Sophie Fedorovitch, Frederick Ashton’s close associate, died near the night of the premiere after a gas leak in her flat.
Ballet is intrinsic to Gluck’s opera with The Dance of the Blessed Spirits one of its musical highlights. According to The Times’ opera review, “Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography was not always well suited to the music, notably in the E flat major dance in the first scene, but he seemed more at home in the Elysian Fields, where Miss Anne Heaton and Mr Alexander Bennett led the blessed spirits’ sedate revels”.
Philip Hope-Wallace, writing in The Guardian, was more critical. “Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography comes no nearer than most efforts to solving the problems of the ballets: indeed it looks leggy, fidgety, and the costumes adopted suggest the more sensational Wimbledon outfit.