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Michael Slattery (© George Mott/Glimmerglass Opera)
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.

Above: Michael Slattery in Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo
Photo: © George Mott/Glimmerglass Opera

 

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 Pastore 4/Pluto.

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

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