you have had the good fortune to visit Amsterdam’s Het Muziektheater where this live recording was made you will know
that it achieves an intimacy and spaciousness unique amongst
modern, state of the art European buildings. In a way this is
not the place, you might think, for the earliest baroque, classically-set
opera known. Yet, this very ‘blue’ production works as a spectacle.
Whether it works acoustically as it were I am not so sure as
the singers do have a vast area to command and of course, this
being Monteverdi, they do not have a large band to support them.
All too often when the singers turn away their voices are momentarily
lost until the levels are smartly adjusted.
introduction goes into some detail about the instruments used
both in the quite involved booklet essay by Stephen Stubbs and
also in his clear demonstration on the first disc. In this we
are given the background to the work, including an interview
with John Mark Ainsley. Stubbs also shows us some of the instruments
including the fascinating thirteen string lirone and how he
uses them; or I should say how he thinks Monteverdi intended
them to be used. He points out that although the score is somewhat
minimalist the composer left fulsome instructions on instrumentation
for certain characters. These include directions on the use
of the regal for the guardian of the river Styx, Caronte. We also see the production
in rehearsal with the director Pierre Audi; clearly a man with
an understanding of the period and the style.
was thinking too how far we have come since the days of say,
Harnoncourt’s ground-breaking recording of 1968 with its rather
nasal-sounding sackbuts and cornetti. There’s also the opening
singer ‘La Musica’, setting the scene. Here the role is assumed
by the soprano Rotraud Hansmann, vibrato and all.
been to this Amsterdam
theatre myself and also having recently been to see a performance
in the ruined Roman theatre in Arles
in Provence, I was struck by how this production
seemed more like an open-air reconstruction of Greek theatre.
With its vast and open-shaped performing area, how this would
have appealed to Monteverdi and his contemporaries! Their aim
after all was to attempt to recreate the kind of experience
that Greek and Roman theatre might have offered two thousand
opera is performed without a break between the acts, except
for changing over the DVD of course. It looks at times, especially
when the female chorus are dancing in Act 1, like a realization
of a Botticeli or Bellini painting. There is a real water-pool
built into the stage which acts as a river. It also serves as
a barrier between the estates of earth and hell. In Act 3 it
even spouts flames.
the light of my above comment I found the opening, with ‘La
Musica’ sung by counter-tenor David Cordier, very arresting.
Equally impassioned is the moving performance of Brigitte Balleys
as the Messenger in Act three as she gives Orfeo the terrible
news of Euridice’s death.
production of this opera has to hinge around the leading role
of Orfeo who hardly ever leaves the stage. It is not emotionally
demanding but, with its long recitative lines and yards of Italian
to grasp, no singer will take it on lightly. It’s worth remembering
that Orfeo’s long arioso to Caronte in which he persuades him
to allow him across the Styx
takes up the whole of Act 3 (tracks 1-13 DVD 2). John Mark
Ainsley, who at one time was associated exclusively with early
music, is utterly compelling. He moves like a figure from Renaissance
paintings and characterizes every move with a passion and meaning
which sometimes makes translation unnecessary. I’m not sure
why he decided to be bald but that’s an aside.
is less of a major role than you might expect, but Juanita Lascarro
is delightfully glowing and wan all at once.
costumes are classically inspired with that for Speranza - Michael
Chance, one of the greatest ever of counter-tenors - being fantastical
and again emphasizing the navy blue colour of the entire concept.
When Speranza vanishes into the floor just the blue is left
worth remembering that this opera was written at a very difficult
time for the composer when he had himself suffered much sorrow
in bereavement. A happy ending would not have suited his ‘mind-set’
as it were. His wife had died as had a child and also a teenage
singer Caterina Martinelli for whom he had written and who might
have lived at his house. The libretto was written by Alessandro
Striggio but in Act Five he seems to encapsulate Monteverdi’s,
and therefore Orfeo’s desperate state of mind when in Orfeo’s
eulogy on Euridice’s perfection he sings ‘no other has or will
live who is her equal’. Apollo’s appearance is marked by his
emotional distance from Orfeo yet he is a comforter for Orfeo
and for the audience as well who need to be helped out of the
malaise. Apollo reminds us all, so typical of the renaissance,
that “have you not learned that human happiness is only fleeting”
and that Orfeo’s sin was that he was too happy when he first
loved Euridice - a sobering thought indeed.
Orfeo has come to terms with his sorrow and learned that Eurdice
will be amongst the heavenly stars the opera continues with
the happiest of Moresco’s but Orfeo can only cynically observe
ending is couched in a certain amount of controversy and Monteverdi’s
conclusion may have been very dark indeed culminating in Orfeo’s
savage death by the Bacchantes. However the solution here works
is unfortunate that another DVD of the opera has also just appeared.
This is the version staged by Jacky Lautem and Jean-Claude Malgoire
with the always excellent Kobie van Rensburg as Orfeo. I have
not seen this but a review I have recently read expresses mixed
feelings about the ensemble work and some of the minor characters.
With this performance I would have no such reservations. The
main problem is to decide whether Audi’s production, with its
stylization of gesture and movement, is what you want; every
moment and glance is slow and meticulously rehearsed. This does
not always bring out the inherent drama as seen in the rehearsal
clips but allows the music to speak in primis.
well as the fifteen minute introduction there is also a useful
illustrated synopsis. Frankly, if you want a DVD of Orfeo, this
should be your first option.