“La Storia di Orfeo”: Mythical Transformations

Nelida Nassar 12.06.2019

The tale of Orpheus is an enduring story about many things, but principally it is a story of music and death. Music is the sound of articulated emotion, the sound of the sense humans create for a world seemingly without intrinsic meaning, a meaninglessness that death incarnates.

Boston Early Music Festival presented “La Storia di Orfeo” during its four-city North American tour to Montreal, Seattle, Kansas City, and New York before closing with two performances in its hometown, Boston. The celebrated countertenor Philippe Jaroussky was accompanied by soprano Amanda Forsythe and musicians from the Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble. The French countertenor was not the only star on stage; for the music was co-directed by Grammy award winners Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, who also contributed as players of the chitarrone and the lute, and Baroque guitar, respectively. And the concertmaster, Robert Mealy, led the orchestra  with great skill.

With “La storia di Orfeo” Jaroussky has realized a long-standing dream of recounting the story of Orpheus, the renegade singer-songwriter par excellence whose musical prowess allows him to break the rules again and again until he has to pay the price. Jaroussky invites us to rediscover the myth of Orpheus through the music of three different versions of it by Baroque composers: Claudio Monteverdi’s, first performed for a courtly audience in Mantua in 1607; Luigi Rossi’s, composed for the French court and presented at the Palais Royal in Paris in 1647; and Antonio Sartorio’s, first performed at a public theater in Venice in 1672. Jaroussky constructs a kind of opera in miniature, or cantata for two solo voices, for the concert stage with the Boston Early Music Chamber Ensemble, focusing on the characters of Orpheus and Eurydice. Rich in discoveries, this three-part work is presented in a single narrative thread. Original and audacious, the format allows the opera lover to appreciate the filiation of these three European composers who were writing at the time when the Baroque musical language and codes were being invented and to experience, perhaps more fully than ever before, how the latter related to the various situations and emotions represented in these scores.

Monterverdi’s 1607 Orfeo wasn’t quite the first opera, but the consensus seems to be that it was the first one that was any good. Some, in fact, consider it to be the greatest ever. The composer was smart enough to choose just about the best story we have; indeed it’s hard to imagine starting with any other. Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Virgil’s Eclogues inspired Renaissance mythology as well as the rediscovery in mid-15th-century Italy of other literary works of classical antiquity, which brought with it a renewed interest in the Orpheus story. Theatrical adaptations with musical accompaniment appeared and, soon afterwards, many operas as well. In the following centuries, this story – of a poet blessed of the gods who descends to Hell to save his deceased wife, Eurydice – has nurtured the imagination of famous composers from Gluck to Offenbach, and more recently, Birtwistle, Glass and Christina Pluhar. BEMF presentation is centered around the Orpheus and Eurydice, from the celebrations of their upcoming marriage up to Eurydice’s untimely death from a snake bite. It concludes  with Orpheus’s braving the underworld to bring her back.

Knowing he could rely on BEMF’s musical homogeneity and Forsythe’s vocal agility, Jaroussky’s seems to be rethinking the staging of the myth of Orpheus with the help of a careful consideration of the art and techniques of breathing, inflections, and ornamentations. The Chamber Ensemble accompanies the soloists brilliantly, revealing its mastery of the instrumental pieces, which span the entire 17th century. The various arias from the three versions of the story were sung with a few transitions interspersed with instrumental numbers (sinfonia); and a continuous narrative frame was created by the choice of similar tonalities, so that at no point did the instrumental pieces come across as simply fillers. 

Following a short overture and two unmemorable duets from Sartorio and Monteverdi, Forsythe’s limpid soprano soared in Rossi’s aria for Euridice, “Mio ben, teco Il tormento” (Beloved with you torment). Her pure and elegant voice sculpting long musical phrases and ornementation expressing steadfast devotion to her new husband. Later, bitten by the snake, she sings Sartorio’s “Ahimè, Numi, son morta” (Alas, O gods, I die), falling into a chair drained of life and color.

After the intermission came a more lively, intense and virtuosic second part with the focus on loss, separation, and loneliness. These emotional states are very conducive to the solos and duets of the long tradition of composite operas of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, when arias were inserted and removed according to the whims and talents of available singers, as well as to the orchestral concerts in which vocal numbers often interrupted a sequence of symphonic movements.

Forsythe, returning to the stage for Sartorio’s “Ombra d’Euridice” (Shade of Eurydice), is now in the underworld and sings from the Jordan Hall balcony before returning to stand behind Orpheus during their ascent back home. This spatialization of the sound is an excellent idea, especially since it was exploited by Monteverdi himself, who played, in particular, with echoes to represent the vastness of the underworld. Thus, only a few brass instruments are needed to evoke Pluto’s entire domain! All evening Forsythe’s pitch and intonation were virtually flawless, and her vocal mastery was fully displayed in the emotional power she achieved with her phrasing. In particular, her “Orfeo tu dormi?” (Orfeo, are you sleeping?) was a model of subtlety. 

Jaroussky seduced us with his astonishing aria “Possente spirto” (O powerful spirit) in which he tries through the magic of his music to persuade the boatman Charon to escort him across the River Styx to rescue Eurydice from Hades. Orfeo’s plan almost works, but at the last moment he loses Eurydice forever. Shattered, he expresses his regret and sorrow in Rossi’s haunting “Lasciate Averno” (Forsake Hades). His voice is supple and luscious as the myth comes to its tragic end: “A morire, a morire, a morire, a morire” (Let me die, let me die, let me die, let me die). Jaroussky has the ability to summon up a rarely encountered combination of theatrical flair, extreme virtuosity and searing emotional conviction. Touching the heart with his intensity, he held the audience captive, hanging on his every note. Throughout its wide range, from alto to the hight notes of Orpheo, his great voice reveals complexities that defy the usual categorizations.

BEMF tonight’s presentation, virtually a lesson in music and history with its enchanting duets and lively period orchestration, shed new light on the evolution of the myth of Orpheus in 17th-century Italian opera. Jaroussky ’s linking together of disparate excerpts based on a single “story” and condensed into a series of tunes interspersed with instrumental pieces, without operatic mise-en-scène, manages to reveal its dramatic intensity and, above all, to provide an emotionally satisfying vehicle that is intelligently conceived and  technically spectacular. The bet is a clear success.

The audience’s ardent applause was rewarded by an unexpected encore, Nerone and Poppea’s final love duet “Pur ti miro, pur ti godo” (Even if I look at you, I enjoy you) from Monteverdi’s 1643 “L’incoronazione di Poppea,” offered as a happy ending in counterpoint to the evening’s tragic story. As neither soloist has a large voice, Jordan Hall is the ideal venue for them, and their voices blend well in such a setting (although their vocal ranges are similar, they have very different timbre). The success of the duo results, above all, from their strong musical affinity for each other, their instruments marrying in a beguiling silky blend. 

La Storia d’Orfeo
Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble
Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, musical direction
Robert Mealy, concertmaster
Philippe Jaroussky, countertenor
Amanda Forsythe, soprano

Photography by: Kathy Wittman

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amanda_Forsythe https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claudio_Monteverdi