20 Mar 2006


In the 1990’s Pierre Audi staged productions of Monteverdi’s three surviving operas (L’Orfeo, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, and L’incoronazione di Poppea) with De Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam.

All three have been recently released as DVD’s, and with the 1997 L’Orfeo, Audi and company offer a provocative performance of Monteverdi’s earliest and also perhaps his most familiar stage work. L’Orfeo comes laden with historical significance. Not the first opera—several works by Peri, Caccini, and Cavalieri have prior claim—L’Orfeo is nevertheless the earliest opera to have captured modern ears; it is where opera seems to begin for the modern audience. It is also something of an icon of the modern historical performance movement, as well. In the late 1960s, few early music groups could claim the visibility and influence of the Concentus Musicus Wien, an ensemble whose 1969 recording of L’Orfeo (Telefunken) was an eye-opening overture to many things that would follow in the decades ahead.

Musically this present Amsterdam L’Orfeo is stunning. John Mark Ainsley’s Orpheus is dynamic and, at times, dramatically urgent in a way that leaves little doubt of either Orpheus’s exalted status as a singer or his impassioned state. Ainsley negotiates the famous Act III vocal challenges with great skill and conviction—ornamentation, articulation, and rapid passage work are all unquestionably and impressively secure. But what raises the level of his Orpheus is his vocal command of the passions themselves. This, too, is the dynamic that must also inform the messenger scene in Act II--in fact, to an even greater degree, because here the messenger has little but the intensity of the passions with which to animate the scene. Brigitte Balleys’s Messenger is impressive, bringing the tragic news of Eurydice’s death with a dramatic range that is rich in inflection. Some may find the occasional prominence of her chest voice problematic, but in context she uses it to intensify and charge the moment, and that decision is one well made.

There are some vocal surprises in the production, to be sure. Countertenors take on the roles of La Musica and La Speranza, to strong effect, both for the masterful singing of David Cordier and Michael Chance and for the defamiliarization that the casting affords. Monteverdi’s performance in 1607 employed the castrato Giovanni Gualberto Magli in these roles, and the countertenor casting here may be something of an echo of the historical record. But, in fact, all the principal female roles were likely sung by males—Eurydice probably by a priest, Girolamo Bacchini and Persephone by Magli—causing one to wonder why the historical echo stopped where it did. But musically there is little about which to complain throughout the opera. Musical director, Stephen Stubbs, is an insightful and ever sure hand in this style, and the combined forces of Tragicomedia and Concerto Palatino are gloriously rich in the fluency they bring to Monteverdi’s score. It is a stunning rendition by all the musicians.

The stage concept is stunning, too, though in nature and approach it seems oddly suited to Monteverdi and L’Orfeo. Audi’s set is minimalistic and symbolic; placed on a vastly spacious stage, the minimalism seems even more hauntingly spare. While the musical score is complex in its variety of aesthetic claims—much of it is sparely recitative, while other parts revel in tuneful and decorative grace—that Orpheus and Apollo take as their signature musical device a language of virtuosic ornamentation places the music and visual presentation on strikingly different planes at important moments. The vastness of the stage itself is a significant interpretative element, and one decidedly different from the intimate venue in which Monteverdi first presented the opera. The huge space endows this present L’Orfeo with an epic, universal quality, but in the end, one wonders if a smaller, more intimate scale would not generally bring greater resonance to the expression of such personally intense affections.

The acting style is unflaggingly interesting, though like the set, curious in context. Orpheus, whose famed vocal abilities would surely enshrine the ultimate in beauty and grace, spends rather a lot of time stretched out on the stage floor, reminding us more of the serpent who killed Eurydice than the offspring of Apollo. On the other hand, in that the musical style is often premised on the notion that musical rules are breakable for the purposes of serving the text, there is a sense here that the postures and gestures, in breaking the bounds of Apollonian dignity, also may do so in the service of the dramatic moment. Thus, both styles—seemingly far removed from the other—seem variations on common artistic priorities.

It is not unusual in modern productions to find historical practice only selectively applied. The music may be richly informed by period style, whereas much else may tend to offer the contrast of intentional anachronism. The anachronisms are often engagingly creative and moving, as is the case here—and that is no bad thing—but in the end, one may wish for productions with a more fully integrated performance practice . . . and that Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo will be the frequent subject of such endeavors!

Steven Plank
Oberlin College