Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

To Hell and back


'L'Orfeo' is the world's first great opera

Orfeo (baritone Simon Keenlyside) and Euridice in L'Orfeo. Photo: Courtesy Harmonia Mundi
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There probably will never be agreement about the precise moment opera was born, but there's no dispute about the date of the genre's first masterpiece: February 24, 1607, when Claudio Monteverdi's L'Orfeo had its premiere at the court of the Duke of Mantua. Honoring its 400th anniversary (along with the 60th birthday of its star, early-music master Rene Jacobs), Harmonia Mundi has released a DVD of a Jacobs-led live performance of the work from the Theatre de la Monnaie on May 21, 1998.

Its story, perfect for the first great opera — music's power to conquer all — is not just apposite but necessary for uninterrupted enjoyment of this particular L'Orfeo. The artistic idiosyncrasies of Jacobs and the director, Trisha Brown — whose Trisha Brown Company of dancers are an integral, almost ubiquitous part of the production — make it what must be one of the most extravagant in the work's four-century history.

There are enough wince-inducing moments in both the music and staging that, for its two-hour, intermissionless duration, I was glad that I'm one of the people who, in the presence of this sublimely beautiful and powerful score, temporarily forget why there ever had to be another opera. As a birthday bash, it goes all out, and for all its oddities, it's more than redeemed by Jacobs' manifestly deep belief in the work and the masterful, vivid music-making he conjures from the Concerto Vocale, the Collegium Vocale Ghent, and a generally expert cast.

Jacobs, who's never been reticent to tart up a 17th-century score with his own, added instrumentation, goes for broke, gratefully with players who do his bidding with faultless, rapturously beautiful musicality. This is a musician who has seldom seen the point of understatement, and his comparable fearlessness about transpositions also peppers his version of an opera that has no one "definitive" score.

The great gain there is the casting of the British baritone Simon Keenlyside in the title role, normally sung by a tenor. For my money, Keenlyside could sing Norma and I'd be there, and his impassioned, gloriously sung Orfeo is consistently transfixing. I'm not pitching my favorite recorded Orfeo, by his countryman Ian Bostridge, but Keenlyside's remains as musical and moving a portrayal as you're likely to hear.

He also has a magnetic physical stage presence granted to few singing actors, and there aren't many B.A.R. readers who wouldn't be willing to follow him into hell. It's not only a payoff in the central act, where that's where he does go to reclaim his dead

newlywed bride Euridice, but in his every moment onstage, when Brown choreographs a nonstop dance on his already daunting vocal role. (He counts the Schubert Winterreise she also choreographed on him the most artistically satisfying moment in his risk-taking career.)

Spiral down

A single moment — when, still singing, he spirals to the bare ground after being told by the Messenger of Euridice's death — would be enough to compensate for less salient Brown touches. Only his unquestioned investment in the role got me through moments such as the beginning of the great, central aria, "Possenti spirto," when Brown has him cover his eyes with his hands as if he were looking through binoculars, then, for a split-second, hop like a bunny. With the torrent of sheer vocal magic pouring out of him, it doesn't much matter what else he does.

The other vocal performance in his league is Graciela Lascarro's as the Messenger. She brings a subtlety and depth to the short role redolent of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's.

Brown's hieroglyphic gestures are far more troublesome as imposed on some of the other cast members, most notably the hapless dancer who doubles as La Musica, who flies around on high-wires in the open circle at the back of the stage like a tipsy Tinkerbell. The choristers, surprisingly, are so adept at Brown's movement style that it's sometimes difficult to distinguish them from her dancers, who move exquisitely throughout.

Sadly, the choristers suffer most from Roland Aeschlimann's costumes, which make them look like interns at a hospital that treats fashion victims. The unfortunate dancer with whom Orfeo tangos his way into hell looks like the head-surgery nurse.

The production's only inexcusably gratuitous touch is, at the very end, bringing Orfeo back from his ascent to the realm of Apollo to be ground to death by the log-rolling Infernal Spirits. For an opera whose second motto, after the fleeting nature of earthly happiness, is the importance of mastering one's own impulses, it's a contradiction of monstrous silliness. Still, earthly happiness doesn't seem all that fleeting while this L'Orfeo casts its spell.

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