The tremendous success and rave reviews elicited by this Orfeo are due in large part to Boston Early Music Festival’s superb orchestra and cast of eight singers.
By Susan Miron
First performed in a small room in the ducal palace in Mantua in 1607 for a small audience of underemployed aristocrats at the end of the Italian Renaissance, Claudio Monteverdi’s (1576–1643) Orfeo was a brand new idea for its time—a play where the actors sung all of their parts. Orfeo is thus the first real opera, which, after two performances, languished until the late nineteenth century. Its performance as a chamber opera Sunday, November 19 in New England Conservatory’s (NEC’s) Jordan Hall was the fourth Thanksgiving weekend chamber opera staged by Boston Early Music Festival (BEMF), and, I think, its most memorable.
The tremendous success and rave reviews elicited by this Orfeo are due in large part to BEMF’s superb orchestra and cast of eight singers. Musical direction was in the gifted hands of Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, who played elongated versions of the lute, a chitarrone (Stubbs also played harpsichord). Gil Blin, as always, supplied imaginative stage direction. Anna Watkins provided the lovely costume designs, while Melinda Sullivan came up with spot-on choreography. The pre-concert talk was astonishingly interesting and much appreciated after many seasons of soporific talks I have dutifully attended. The speaker was the illustrious Tom Kelly, Harvard professor of music. (See him on YouTube under Harvard Great Professors). Dynamic and fascinating, Kelly brought this opera to life, humanizing its complicated main character, Orfeo. Kelly held the audience in rapt attention: he’s the teacher I wish I had had when I suffered badly taught music history in music school.
The small BEMF Chamber Orchestra was excellent, its two music directors, Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, leading spirited performances marked by clarity and sensitivity. One of the production’s stars was Baroque harpist Maxine Eilander, who both played along with the two chitarrones and performed exquisite solos during Orfeo‘s heart-rending travails. (Mr. Kelly pointed out that this was the first harp solo written down in Western music). The Concerto Palatino provided seven players who enchanted with cornettos, recorder, trombones, and trumpet. Each time they appeared, you knew you were in for a thrill.
Monteverdi’s Orfeo, with its libretto by the court poet Allesandro Striggio (ca. 1573–1630), looks back a thousand years at classical Greek tragedy—its own sort of early-music performance—while the BEMF production dealt expertly with the musical mentality of 400 years ago. Full of jagged intervals, juxtapositions of weird chords, and exquisite vocal and instrumental music, Orfeo tells the story of a consummate singer and master of the lyre who loses his beloved—twice. His trouble stems from his breaking a deal, out of excessive emotion, he made with Pluto, god of the Underworld. Importantly, Orfeo is the son of Apollo, god of the sun, of music, of reason and balance. Orfeo’s tragedy arises from a conflict of not being able to decide whether to follow his heart or his head, putting him squarely in Pluto’s realm of emotional chaos.
Orpheus (the excellent Aaron Sheehan) famously falls in love with Euridice (the beautiful soprano Mireille Asselin). Just as they are about to marry, she is bitten by a poisonous snake and perishes. Shannon Mercer, a Nymph, has the unenviable task of achingly singing the news to Orpheus. The latter sets out to find Euridice in Hades and to rescue her. His descent, full of obstacles, is nothing compared to his emotionally treacherous ascent. The famous deal with Pluto was that Orfeo would lead the way, with his beloved in back of him, but he could NOT look back. He is morbidly tempted—what if he surfaces and she was never there? How can he be sure? So, of course, he looks back. This production presented a tender, short scene with the lovers as she starts to fade away. It was done exquisitely and unforgettably.
Dancer Carlos Fittante charmingly portrayed a jester in the prologue and acted out a different allegorical character in each act-Hymen, God of Marriage, Pan God of Shepherds, Thanatos, God of Death, Amor, God of Love, and Harpocrates, God of Silence. The company of eight singers (most of whom sang multiple roles) were all praiseworthy. Jason McStoots, as second Shepherd, second Infernal Spirit, and finally Apollo, was his usual ebullient self, a complete joy to watch and to hear.
In Monteverdi’s version of Orfeo, the hero (understandably) goes mad with grief; Apollo appears in a cloud to calm down his heartbroken son. He hoists him up to heaven, where he will reunite with Euridice in the stars. There was much to admire, yes, to love, in BEMF’s Orfeo. This will be an Orfeo with which all others will be compared. Bravos to all involved.