Friday, June 19, 2015

Boston Early Music Festival: Monteverdi's L'Orfeo

Mireille Asselin (Euridice), Aaron Sheehan (Orfeo), and Nathan Medley (1st Shepherd),
with members of the BEMF Chamber Ensemble and the Dark Horse Consort. Photo: Kathy Wittman
Saturday, June 13, Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory of Music. BEMF Vocal, Chamber, and Dance Ensembles with the Dark Horse Consort. Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs, musical directors; Gilbert Blin, stage director and set designer.

The story was performed to the great satisfaction of all who heard it. The Lord Duke, not content to have been present at this performance, or to have heard it many times in rehearsal, has ordered it to be given again; and so it will be, today, in the presence of all the ladies of this city.
—Francesco Gonzaga to his brother Ferdinando Gonzaga, 1 March 1607 [1]
Several letters describing aspects of the first performance of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo on 24 February 1607 have survived. One of the striking things about these descriptions is that no one calls the work an opera. While we think of L'Orfeo as opera's first masterpiece, the form was so new that the contemporary audience did not have a word for it. L'Orfeo was called variously "la favola in musica" (the musical fable), "la favola cantata" (the sung fable), and "la comedia" (the play).

In fact, it was the very newness of the idea of singing theatrical dialogue that probably suggested Orpheus as a subject to Monteverdi and his librettist Alessandro Striggio. Opera had first been developed in Florence less than a decade previously in an attempt to recreate the performance practices of ancient Greek theater, in which it was believed that the text was sung throughout. To counteract the strangeness of this new form, early opera composers sought stories in which it would seem natural for characters to sing. There had been two previous operas by other composers entitled Euridice (one by Jacopo Peri and another by Giulio Caccini, both written in 1600); after all, the power of song is central to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.

Monteverdi was able to use the newly developed stile recitativo, or sung declamation of text, in extraordinarily expressive ways. Here is La Messaggiera (The Messenger), after bringing the news of Euridice's death to Orfeo, condemning herself to exile and self-torment; the singer is Sara Mingardo, accompanied by Le Concert des Nations conducted by Jordi Savall:

All of the roles in the first performance of L'Orfeo were likely taken by men (again, perhaps in imitation of ancient Greek theater), with the female roles being sung by castrati. We also know that L'Orfeo was created under the auspices of the Accademia degli Invaghiti (Academy of the Besotted, a group of aristocratic aficionados of the arts to which Francesco Gonzaga, Ferdinando Gonzaga and Alessandro Striggio belonged) and was commissioned for the festivities of the Carnival season, which also featured spoken plays.

Gilbert Blin's production of L'Orfeo for the BEMF made no attempt to recreate the first performance. Instead, Blin made the connection to Carnival and the commedia tradition explicit by making the singers the members of a troupe of travelling players; the piece opens with the singers hauling a cart of costumes and props onstage. It was a clever mashup that worked surprisngly well (Anna Watkins designed the simple and effective costumes). And placing the instrumentalists onstage, with the singers performing around and among them, enhanced the production's feeling of intimacy.

Some of Blin's other inspirations, though, were not so happy. He added a silent dancer (Carlos Fittante) who enacted various unnecessary and frankly distracting roles in each of the five acts and prologue (a jester, Hymen, Pan, Thanatos, Amor, and Harpocrates, the God of Silence). Blin also had the singers periodically unroll paper scrolls which stated the (generally obvious) moral of the scene we'd just witnessed.

Fortunately, the performances of the BEMF vocal and instrumental ensembles was of such a high standard that these superfluous additions did not detract significantly. Aaron Sheehan sang superbly in the taxing role of Orfeo, while the lovely Mireille Asselin was a sweet-toned Euridice. Teresa Wakim as the abducted Proserpina and Shannon Mercer as the sorrowing Silvia/La Messaggiera sang movingly, and Matthew Brook was an appropriately impassive Caronte (Charon). The Dark Horse Consort of trombones and cornetti added appropriately somber sonorities for the scenes in the underworld.

If no other operas by Monteverdi besides L'Orfeo were known he would still be a hugely important figure in music history. Fortunately for us, scores for two of the three operas he wrote for Venetian public theaters towards the end of his long life have survived, and they are the two greatest operas of the seventeenth century. Il ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria (The return of Ulysses, 1640) and L'incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea, 1642) will be the subjects of my next two posts.

Next time: Il ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria
Last time: Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610


1. Quoted in John Whenham, ed., Claudio Monteverdi: Orfeo. Cambridge Opera Handbooks, 1986, p. 171. Translation by Iain Fenlon slightly modified.

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