Boston Early Music Festival Presents Orfeo

Favola in Musica (A Tale in Music)

Nélida Nassar  11.19.2012



Saturday, November 24 at 8.00 p.m.
Sunday, November 25 at 3.00 p.m.
New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, Boston

It takes just two measures for Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, directors of the Boston Early Music Festival – which they founded in 1980 – to capture the incisive brass sounds establishing the mood and tone of this full-length of Orfeo’s musical drama. As soon as soprano Mireille Asselin’s passionate, florid voice (heard with Opera Atelier in Dido and Aeneas, and Handel’s Theodora with the Bach Collegium, San Diego) sings the prologue “From my beloved Permessus I come to you,” (Dal mio Permesso amato à voi ne vegno), dancer Carlos Fittante gracefully and sequentially appears as the jester; Hymen, God of Marriage; Pan, God of Sheperds; Thanatos, God of Death; Amor, God of Love and Harpocrates, God of Silence in lavish period costumes and masks imparting rhythmic cadence throughout the opera. Right from the start, an exceptional clarity is apparent in this adaptation of Monteverdi’s stile recitativo, with its subtle and graceful music. This is not a fully staged production but more an early chamber opera, one which includes the surviving music of the published score. An adaptation that returns to the original opera revised version presented in Mantua’s Gonzaga Palazzo Ducale in 1607.

Orfeo’s opera is about the power of singing, the theme around which the entire work is constructed. What does Orfeo want to tell us? For many, it is an illustration of the unlimited power of music. Is it not with his singing that Orfeo makes Charon fall asleep so that he can cross the Styx to bring Euridice – bitten by a snake – back to life? Would Proserpine have interceded with Pluto on his behalf if she was not moved by his lament ¬ embodied here by the fabulous young tenor Aaron Sheehan (who appeared in Charpentier’s Actéon and L’Amour, in Lully’s Psychée, and in Handel’s Acis and Galatea)? Would Apollo have given his son Orfeo the gift of immortality permitting him to contemplate Euridice residing among the stars if he had not been touched by the sound of his lyre? As we know from historical documents, Monteverdi and his librettist Alessandro Striggio were obliged to revise the Act V finale. The scene where Apollo leads Orfeo to immortality replaced the deadly Bacchanal initially written by Striggio. In the original ending, the limits of music are emphasized along with the precarious condition of the artist, who is always and contanstly in danger of committing the sin of hubris.

Orfeo, enthralled by his own voice’s beauty wants to impose it forcefully, but in the process he loses it and learns from his loss that one cannot completely tame nature. The Bacchantes, drunk from Dionysus’s wine, eventually cut off Orfeo’s head, which continues to sing while floating on the river.

Gilbert Blin, the stage director returns to Monterverdi and Striggio’s revised version where Apollo leads Orfeo to immortality and his reunion with Euridice, emphasizing Monteverdi’s usage of the Echo scene. Orfeo hears himself sing and is only assured of his power by what the Echo reverberates back to him. The Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble will render this Echo with greater precision than ever before. The choreographic vocabulary is part court dance, and part Baroque. The power and magic of this production resides with costume designer Anna Watkins’s sumptious period garments, the lighting of designer Lenore Doxsee, and, above all, Blin’s minimal, raised three-tiers platform and elegant sets evoking eloquently the opera’s seminal scene of the passage from light to dark, and from earth to hell.

Boston Early Music’s production of Orfeo promises a majestic two-hour evening of lush, lyrical orchestration. It also presents a group of stellar singers from Aaraon Sheehan’s Orfeo with his smooth, gliding tonality; to Mireille Asselin as Euridice; to soprano Téresa Wakim light and agile voice with beautiful timber of depth and intensity in the roles of nymphs and Prosperina; to Olivier Laquerre bass-baritone rich dramatic tessitura and resonant dark tone with smooth high cantabile line; to Shannon Mercer as the Messengiera. Her voice at the announcement of Euridice’s death is exhilarating and the counter-tenor Ryland Angel, the Spirit beautifully sings the famous “poured your heart under the dictation of love.” (Versato il tuo cuore sotto la dettatura di amore).

The myth of Orfeo has been told in many ways over the centuries. Like so many myths, it survives because it resonates with universal truth. Monteverdi teaches us about hard reality through allegorical characters intended to transmit a moral message. When Apollo tells his son: “Do you still not know how nothing that delights down here will last?” (Ancor non sai come nulla qua giù diletta e dura?) it is as if Orfeo is learning this principle for the first time – the same principle which causes artists, at least those who are fundamentally narcissistic to die. In Blin’s production, the attention to the smallest detail (from the cartouche to the scrolls where the libretto and moralistic sentences are translated into English), the majestic music, the staging, the dance, and the gestures all serve to convey in equal measure the Apollonian and the Dionysian elements of the score as it modulates from shadow to light.

Originally Published in Berkshire Fine Arts

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