Monteverdi’s Orfeo at the Boston Early Music Festival 2012 – 5 Stars
Orfeo is often thought of as the world’s first opera, but it would be more accurate to say that it’s a play in which the actors sing their parts. Opera as we know it did not exist when this work was first performed in 1607. As Harvard professor Thomas Forrest Kelly points out in his illuminating program note, the structure of Orfeo reflects the tremendous wave of renewed interest in the classical world that overtook Europe during this era. It was thought that Greek dramas were so arresting because the actors sang rather than spoke. This also accounts for the two chittarones that are the backbone of the musical ensemble- It’s a plucked string instrument with an enormous neck and is a baroque answer to the ancient Greek kithara. For all the scholarly pedigree that goes along with Orfeo, it was an experimental work originally performed in a small room for a small audience. In that respect, it bears no resemblance to the outrageously opulent baroque operas that were performed during the reign of Louis XIV, which are a bit better known and are probably what most people think of when they hear the term “baroque opera.”
As befits Orfeo’s ambiguous classification and relatively humble performance history, the BEMF staged a clean, refined, and restrained performance at Jordan Hall, a historic venue renowned for its perfect acoustics and more suited to concerts than plays or operas. This was not a full-scale production: There were no sets and the singers shared the stage with the musicians, which seemed fitting: This is a festival about music after all, and Monteverdi’s compositions were the true star of this performance. The elegant and imaginative period costumes and minimal use of masks and props were just enough to add color to the performance and make the story legible. Its simplicity was refreshing: I love opera of all kinds, but even I admit that opera is almost inherently goofy: Only in opera could a character be mortally wounded and then take eight minutes to tell us that he’s dying. You have to accept its flamboyance for what it is and focus on the beauty of the music. There were no superficial excesses in Orfeo, and I didn’t mind one bit. Gilbert Glin’s staging was simple and extremely effective. He’s particularly adept at creating vivid and exciting tableaux onstage. My only real quarrel was the inclusion of a masked dancer. Whether a nod to the period or not, too often he seemed to have nothing meaningful to do and distracted me from the main performers. Periodically, he would unwind scrolls inscribed with a Latin maxim. However, he had to use several scrolls to display the English translation- It takes a whole sentence to say in English what Latin can express in as little as three words. Watching one man slowly unroll several scrolls of paper was a little tedious. This literary flourish was most affective when several performers unrolled the scrolls at the same time, and held them high enough for the whole audience to see.
The BEMF is infamous for attracting the best and most devoted performers of early music from around the world, and the singers of Orfeo lived up to the festival’s reputation. It helps that opera is written in Italian: The language has lots of big, round vowels and so it has an elegant, careening sort of sound when sung. Aaron Sheenan in the titular role carried the show beautifully. Monteverdi’s score is tremendously passionate and emotionally evocative, and Sheenan conveyed it perfectly. I heard a lot of sniffing among the rapt and otherwise silent audience. Mireille Asselin as La Musica and Orfeo’s doomed bride Euridice stood out as my favorite. There are few things more pleasing to me than a good soprano. The voices of the other two women were just as agile, but Asselin’s shined brighter for its sweetness and lightness. Also noteworthy was Douglas Williams as Caronte (ie Charon) whose exquisitely rich bass-baritone filled the hall, surpassing Olivier Lacquerre’s Plutone by far. I must say I found Sharon Mercer’s theatrics a bit exorbitant; they would have been more appropriate in a full-scale, high-octane opera and felt a little out of place in this comparatively low-key production. There was no need for all those broad gestures of anguish, anyway: Her extremely expressive voice was enough!
It’s always a joy to see a performance by a group of people who are so obviously passionate about their work. Not only could you hear the joy of the musicians in their playing, you could see it on their faces. Paul O’Dette & Stephen Stubbs, the musical directors of this production and the masters behind this entire festival, were so ruddy-cheeked and giddy by the end of the show that I half-expected one of them to let go of his long-necked chittarone and punch the air. It’s that kind of enthusiasm that makes the Boston Early Music Festival worth attending. 5 stars.
This performance is over, but for more, see the Boston Early Music Festival website.