Recently in Performances
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16 Aug 2007
Monteverdi’s “L’Orfeo”, Glimmerglass 2007 — Slattery rises to Alden’s challenging concept
The first masterpiece in the history of opera. That’s a tall order to live up to for any company and for any band of singers, especially those at the beginning of their careers.
But that’s what Glimmerglass Opera is all
about — pushing young singers on the cusp of international careers into the
limelight with challenges of this sort of calibre. Luckily for them, this is
an opera that has enjoyed a wealth of thought-provoking productions all
around the world in the past two decades, and an audience now much more at
ease with early 17th century musical forms than at any time since
L’Orfeo’s first performance 400 years ago.
To quote Gustav Leonhardt, Monteverdi “turned a page of musical history
and started to write a new chapter full of daring harmonies and (previously)
unheard human passions.” Unfortunately there is a dearth of instructions from the composer and so
nothing is writ in stone — yet, down through the years and certainly in the
many 20th and 21st century recordings of L’Orfeo, all
sorts of ideas as to how this juxtaposition of instrument and voice might be
realised have been attempted. However, one thing is certain: he demanded the
supremacy of the individual human voice in its eternal quest for
psychological and dramatic truth. So that too has to be a priority of any
staging: the voices and the story they tell must shine clear and unobstructed
by any misguided directorial conceits.
On that subject, this production directed by one of opera’s current
enfant terribles, Chris Alden, certainly tried the patience of many in the
audience. Having attended its premier at Opera North in England last year, I
was intrigued to see how Alden’s conceits had travelled to this very
different house, and different singers. I wrote then: “You don’t get very
much more classic than the opera that virtually invented the art-form, and
Christopher Alden has most decidedly set out to challenge a few well-worn
notions of this favola in musica.” Indeed he does, and on second
acquaintance, I can’t say that I’m any more enamoured than I was first
time around. It’s patchy; and although the idea of Orfeo as a troubled
artist/singer in some sort of faux ducal palace works very well, the eliding
of certain essential parts of the story — such as Eurydice’s rescue and
second death — just jar the sensibilities too much, as do many of the bits
of rather tired post-modernistic little “business” that the singers have
to carry. Endless yards of sticky tape (to confine Eurydice to Hades and also
to represent the Styx and now played more for laughs) and dozens of un-lit
cigarettes get boring so quickly. Having said that, as this is the
Glimmerglass Orpheus festival, in celebration of the great story’s many
transmogrifications, perhaps the challenging Alden approach is what’s
needed to keep the adrenaline running?
The pivotal and dominating role is of course that of Orfeo himself, where
muse and myth fuse into the legendary singer who descended into the
underworld to bring back his dead wife Eurydice, yet failed in the final
moments. The essential difference between first run in Leeds, and here was
the Orfeo. Paul Nilon in England concentrated on projecting a quite limpid,
gentle, musical soul whose journey and eventual failure seemed oh-so-human
and sympathetic. Here, Michael Slattery, a young American tenor and Juilliard
graduate, was a very different kettle of fish. Resembling more a wild, wilful
and wasted rock star of the 80's or 90's, his lithe body often seeming to
project emotion and nervous energy as clearly as his admirably coloured
tenor. His second act vocal climax, the virtuosic "Possente spirto", where
the singer has to “audition” his way past Caronte at the gates of Hell,
is 10 minutes of some of the most difficult vocal writing that Monteverdi (or
his contemporaries) ever committed to paper. Slattery’s performance was a
lesson in dramatic singing - the young poet/singer grew more desperate, more
anxious, as his words seemed to fail him in his quest. If some tonal beauty
was lost in the service of the drama, then it was a risk worth taking.
He was well supported by some spirited and effective singing from the rest
of the cast, who doubled as the Chorus, although some were more committed to
(and comfortable with) early music performance practice than others. Of note
were Megan Monaghan as Eurydice/Speranza and bass Christopher Temporelli as
Matching them and Slattery in musical commitment was the orchestra under
Antony Walker whose strong musical sense and understanding of idiom enabled
the period instrument-augmented Glimmerglass Opera Orchestra to sound
remarkably “authentic”. At this sort of festival with five widely varying
works in repertory through the summer, one cannot expect scholarly exactitude
from the players or the instruments they use — but with some clever
adjustments (such as substituting the original cornetti with muted piccolo
trumpets) and additions (three theorbos to augment the continuo
accompaniment) Walker and his players gave a most satisfactory approximation
to the real thing.
© Sue Loder 2007
Performances continue August 14th, 17th, 20th, 23rd, and 25th.
For tickets (limited availability): Glimmerglass Opera Box Office
(607) 547-2255 and more information from the website: http://www.glimmerglass.org