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S & H International Opera Review

Monteverdi, ‘L’Orfeo’ La Monnaie, Brussels, May 2nd and 4th 2002 (ME)

 

This profoundly moving, brilliantly staged and impeccably performed rendition of ‘L’Orfeo’ is just what jaded London opera – goers need after some of the offerings with which they have been presented this season. Go on, you know you can do it; a quite decent seat may be had for 31 Euros (that’s around £19) you can get there on Eurostar for £69 weekend return, and a room at the Hotel Opéra, literally steps away, costs 73 Euros (£48) – total £136, which is £2 under the Royal Opera’s price for a goodish seat to see the current ‘Trovatore,’ and I won’t even go into the possibilities Brussels offers for chocolate – and – waffle guzzling and beer consumption.

Critics, too, are far from immune when it comes to being jaded, and this production served to remind me of what it’s all supposed to be about; I was fortunate to attend two performances, the standards of both surpassing anything else I’ve seen so far this season in terms of staged opera (I except Les Arts Florissants’ ‘Il Ritorno di Ulisse’) and that of the second touching heights of glory such as most of us are only rarely privileged to encounter.

The Toccata’s ‘silver, snarling trumpets ‘gan to chide’ from the equivalent of the Royal Box, setting the scene for a production in which Trisha Brown contravenes virtually every unwritten rule of the staging of this opera, beginning with the stunning rendition of the Prologo, usually seen as a set piece of stand -and - deliver in which La Musica prepares us for the story of the great singer whose power could move all nature. Here, the black - clad Sophie Karthäuser (who also took the roles of Euridice and Eco) sang from the pit as though she really were part of the ritornelli, and the nature of Music itself was enshrined in the person of a flying dancer (there really is no more accurate phrase for what she was) who moved with incredible grace and fluidity, her supporting wires and occasional guiding hands barely visible, sometimes suggesting the power of Music to go where she will, and at other times evoking the guardian presence of the little ‘Putti’ figures seen in frescoes by artists such as Mantegna.

Ronald Aeschlimann’s designs and lighting were based largely upon the striking use of a circular sun / moon / planet shape and showed a wonderful empathy with the director’s concept. Set against the backdrop of a limpid moon, this was the first of many stage pictures which were as moving representations as I have ever seen, yet it did not exist only in the abstract, for it is part of Brown’s genius as a director that she is not only unusually intimate with the narrative but also with the text and the music; at the line ‘Non si muova augellin,’ (let no birds even flutter) the figure dropped sheer from the top edge of the ‘moon’ to the bottom, then becoming utterly still – magical.

The Pastoral scenes evoking the joys of Hymen and Nature, so often verging on the cringeworthy, were here danced and sung with grace and commitment; what a joy to experience the effortlessness of highly trained dancers, their gestures so exactly evoking the emotions underlying the music. The sequence and patterning of their movement, now lush and yielding, now harsh and angular as required, evoked what Brown has called ‘ the myriad form and shapes of things,’ and was nowhere more eloquent than in the beautifully crafted management of the characters of Orfeo and the Messaggiera.

How to combine the functions of singers and dancers? A monumental challenge, but somewhat less daunting when Orfeo is enshrined in the graceful presence of John Mark Ainsley, already widely recognized as ‘the’ Orfeo of our time. On the first night, I felt that he and one or two others in the cast were somewhat affected by nerves, manifested in an occasional reluctance to sing out, but by the third performance such wholly understandable problems had been forgotten, and he gave a stunning rendition of the part, as remarkable for its fluent movement as it was for its exquisitely tender and virtuosic singing. Ainsley immersed himself totally in this difficult role, bringing it off triumphantly even in the extremely demanding movement and gesture; Trisha Brown told me later that she had been thrilled with his assumption of it because he not only understood what she wanted, but ‘gave so much of himself.’

Surely, one might say, it’s quite enough to have to launch your voice into something like ‘Ecco pur ch’a voi ritorno’ without having to leap onto the stage like Nijinsky the second before opening your mouth; in such circumstances, where does the required amount of breath come from? The easy answer is, of course, prodigious technique and dedicated training, but here so much more was in evidence, since it was clear that singer and director were absolutely in step; the empathy was transparently obvious, and Ainsley’s movement was constantly as masterly and confident as his singing. A production of this opera stands or falls on the man who hardly leaves the stage after his entrance, and this Orfeo held us all spellbound with his poetic ‘Rosa del Ciel,’ his alternately heart – rending and wilful ‘Ma tu, anima mia,’ and of course most obviously his ‘Possente spirto.’ This virtuoso aria must represent the most demanding nine minutes of any singers’ life, and whilst it would create totally the wrong impression to say that Ainsley sang it with careless ease, it was abundantly clear that its incredibly florid lines held no terrors for him.

It is often forgotten that ‘Possente spirto’ is not just a plea from the great ‘Cantor’ to the grim Caronte, but a depiction of all-too-human arrogance and hubris as well as godlike pride, and here both singer and director had understood this and were able to encourage us to follow Orfeo’s progression from confidence in his great art, through touching sincerity in his plea, to overblown rhetoric. Ainsley’s voice is extremely beautiful in itself, but it is always used in the service of the text rather than as a vehicle for mere display, and his singing of lines such as ‘Mia cara sposa il cor non è piu meco….’ gave almost as intense a pleasure as that to be gained from his astoundingly controlled ‘A lei volt’ ho il cammin……’ in which the extremely long line was taken without a single breath to break it up. As Monteverdi wrote to Striggio in 1616, Orfeo moves us because he is a man, not ‘just’ a singer or a semi-God, and there can be few more sympathetic interpreters of the role than this tenor. A great performance.

Ainsley was not, however, a brightly lit figure against which all the others were mere

shadows, since he was supported by an outstandingly musical cast and playing of the greatest polish from the Concerto Vocale under René Jacobs, whose forthright, sometimes earthy style, especially in the Ritornelli, reminded us of the vernacular traditions of this opera as well as its lyrical beauty. Sophie Karthäuser sang with elegant phrasing, lovely tone and sweet musicianship, as did Topi Lehtipuu and Lorenzo Carola as the Pastori and Stephen Wallace as Speranza, and very strong vocal characterizations were also provided by Henry Waddington’s Plutone and Paolo Battaglia’s Caronte.

Laura Polverelli’s Messaggiera was simply the finest assumption of this central role that I have ever experienced. Noble in bearing and dignified in presence, she has a lovely, warm, shapely mezzo, beautifully even from top to bottom, wonderful diction and thrillingly confident phrasing, and her bitter lines evoking Silvia’s anguish at how she has had to ‘pierce the loving heart of Orpheus’ represented some of the most purely moving singing I have heard for a very long time. This is a singer of whom I hope to hear a great deal more.

In conclusion, perhaps just one brief scene will give some idea of the experience of this production, and it is the moment when the Messaggiera gives Orfeo the terrible news. Accompanied with wonderful simplicity and economy of gesture, the phrase ‘ e morta’ falls upon the air with devastating force, and Orfeo’s reaction is an astounding moment of theatre – instead of whispering his ‘Ohimè’ and either collapsing in a heap or holding his head in his hands, here his whole upper body seems to crumple as the word comes from his lips and its import seems to go back into his consciousness, and you are made to see the grief falling through every part of him; it is a moment of visceral drama which made me gasp aloud, as did the subsequent highly charged departure from the stage of the Messaggiera, and Orfeo’s incredible final posture of deepest sorrow, his entire body tortuously yet somehow gracefully contorted into an emblem of shattered anguish. Tremendous.

 

Melanie Eskenazi

 


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