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Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643)
Orfeo: John Mark Ainsley
Euridice: Juanita Lascarro
La Messagiera: Brigitte Balleys
Apollo: Russell Smyth
La Musica: David Cordier
La Speranza: Michael Chance
Caronte: Mario Luperi
Proserpina: Bernarda Fink
Plutone: Dean Robinson
Pastores: Jean-Paul Fouchecourt; Russell Smyth; Douglas Nasrawi; Dean Robinson
Ninfa: Suzie Le Blanc
Spiriti: Jean-Paul Fouchecourt; Russell Smyth; Douglas Nasrawi
Tragicomedia and Concerto Palatino/Stephen Stubbs
Stage Director: Pierre Audi
Recorded live at the Het Muziektheater Amsterdam in July 1997
DVD OPUS ARTE OA 0928 D [2 DVDs: 140:00]



If 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.

The 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.

I 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.

Having 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 years ago.

The 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.

In 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.

Any 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. 

Euridice is less of a major role than you might expect, but Juanita Lascarro is delightfully glowing and wan all at once.

The 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 behind.

It’s 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.

Once 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 it.

The 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 very pleasingly.

It 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.

As 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.

Gary Higginson



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