Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Bringing Orfeo to life

Mireille Asselin and Aaron Sheehan - photo: Kathy Wittman
Unlike many art forms, opera kicked off with a masterpiece - Monteverdi's Orfeo, probably the first opera evah, still ranks as one of the most gorgeous ever written. Which makes it all the stranger that the work was rarely performed for nearly four hundred years; after its initial bows (around 1607) in the Duke of Mantua's living room, it was largely lost to the repertoire before early music aficionados began reviving it in the late twentieth century - as the Boston Early Music Festival did in a memorable semi-staged production last weekend at Jordan Hall.

Well, maybe that long silence becomes somewhat more understandable when you realize how much of the sheer beauty of Orfeo depends on the timbres of the original instruments for which Monteverdi composed it.  This deep sympathy between medium and message is so arresting, in fact, that often during the BEMF production, I found myself wondering - would I even want to hear Orfeo steamrolled by the RCA-Victor stereophonic sound of, say, the Boston Symphony Orchestra?  Well - maybe; but it's so much more ravishing in the delicate, plaintive voices of its period that I'm very glad to have the chance to hear it in something like its original form.

And luckily, BEMF had drawn together a sterling period ensemble for the production - long gone are the days when musicians were still figuring out how to play these curious forbears of the familiar members of the modern orchestra.  As always, BEMF Musical Directors Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs were superb on the chitarrone, but Maxine Eilander was if anything even more poignantly seductive on an exquisite baroque harp; the string section, under concertmaster Robert Mealy, was likewise supple and vibrant, and even the horns this time were clean and robust - probably the best I've heard in Boston, actually - thanks to the visiting members of Concerto Palatino.  Instrumentally, the evening was a triumph.

Vocally, it was often just as strong, although slightly less consistent.  What gap there was lay right at the production's center, I'm afraid - as Orfeo, the musical demi-god who (as we all know) attempts to rescue his lover Euridice from the land of the dead, tenor Aaron Sheehan seemed to be warming up in the first half - to be fair, he did come through with real musical and emotional power in the heartbreaking finale (when Orfeo loses his beloved a second time - although in this version, he and Euridice are transformed into stars by Apollo, so they can gaze upon each other forever).  Sheehan was playing catch-up by then, however, to Mireille Asselin's radiant Euridice, Teresa Wakim's haunted Prosperina, and the skillful countertenor  Ryland Angel, who smoothly negotiated shifts from one register to another in various roles.  Perhaps even a little further ahead was tenor Jason McStoots, who sang elegantly throughout (in beautifully phrased Italian, btw), but who shone brightest as Apollo, along with soprano Shannon Mercer, whose recitatives on Euridice's death were devastating, and the astonishing Douglas Williams, whose bottomless bass seemed to send a reverb throughout the underworld as Charonte, the recalcitrant boatman of the river Styx.

I must add, however, that for once stage director Gilbert Blin's Pippin-style concept (in which traveling players seemed to be putting on the show for an unseen Duke) felt a bit out of focus.  The production was always engaging and affecting, but in Blin's best work the costuming and blocking coalesce into deeper intellectual ideas than seemed to be the case here.  Likewise I cared less for the dancing than usual.  The group roundelays weren't quite confident on opening night (classical singers are rarely natural dancers), and so made an uneasy contrast with the cleanly etched "professional" cavorting of the one trained dancer, the skillful Carlos Fittante (but weren't they all supposed to be trained entertainers?). More importantly, some of Fittante's numbers in the second act seemed to intrude, in an oddly ironic way, on the tragic action.  Still, this was a small caveat in a luminous production that I'll savor in my memory for a long time to come.


  1. Not to be nit-picky, but Monteverdi's Orfeo was not the first opera ever (or evah) but surely the earliest to be performed regularly in modern times.

    The first operas were by Peri and were premiered in Florence. Dafne is officially the first opera and it premiered in 1597, and was followed by Euridice in 1600. The Dafne score is lost but Euridice's has survived. It was recorded decades ago and released on two Musical Heritage Society discs that I still own and have used while lecturing. It is a sweet piece, nothing like the florid later Italian operas out of Venice, or as sophisticated as the Monteverdi works that have survived.

    Monteverdi's Orfeo premiered in Mantua in 1607 at the end of opera history's first decade.

  2. Yes, I've heard claims for Peri before, and others as well. Alas, Dafne of course is lost, and Euridice never seems to be played. But I'm happy to listen to nit-picks.