Monteverdi, L'Orfeo / L'Incoronazione di Poppea / Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria, conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and directed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle (re-released March 13, 2007)
The hokey qualities are made worse by the fact that the sound was recorded in the Opernhaus Zürich several months before the film was shot in Vienna (this was 1977 and 1978), and the lip-syncing is as unrealistic as ever. So this is not the DVD to buy if you only want one, but it is of obvious interest to a collector or a Baroque specialist. This marks the arrival of the HIP movement in many ways, one of the earliest residencies (I am inclined to think it was the first) of a specialized ensemble in a regular opera theater, a model that is now quite common in Europe. All the more unusual, then, that Harnoncourt's ensemble provides the musical fabric for a cast drawn more or less from the Zurich Opera's regulars. None of them would fit the stereotype of the "early music singer," and they are almost uniformly good. (Yes, that is the sweet tenor of Francisco Araiza singing the parts of a shepherd and a spirit.) By all accounts, the stage premiere of this production, in 1975, was an extraordinary success with audiences and critics alike. Monteverdi's operas were reborn.
Monteverdi's Orfeo, premiered in Mantua in 1607 (400 years ago this year), represents in many ways the beginning of the genre of opera: although there were operas before Monteverdi, he was the first to grasp the dramatic potential of opera and move beyond the mind-numbing predominance of the stile recitativo. Not to discount the importance of the pioneering works of the Florentine Camerata, but it is really in Orfeo that we first recognize what we will know as opera for the following four centuries. Here are not only arias with memorable and vocally virtuosic melodies like the stunning Possente spirto (.PDF file of the score) in the third act (by which Orfeo almost convinces Charon to allow him to enter Hades), but ensembles, choral numbers, love duets, a wedding divertissement, and instrumental sinfonias.
Of course, this is the summer in which I will be noticing references in everything to Dante, and Orfeo has a direct citation of a famous line from the Inferno. When Orfeo reaches the gate of Hades, to the sound of those famous trombones (sackbuts), he meets the allegorical character of Hope, La Speranza. She encourages Orfeo along his way to find Euridice's shade but stops where Charon blocks the way. According to law, she tells Orfeo, she is not allowed to enter that realm. "LASCIATE OGNI SPERANZA, VOI CH'ENTRATE," she sings twice, quoting the final verse of the three-stanza inscription that Dante reads on the gate of Hell (Inferno, Canto 3). In this production, a sign with that inscription, topped with a skull and cobwebs, drops in front of the camera. La Speranza, reciting, clasps her hands to her face in horror. If you intend to enter nella città dolente, she tells Orfeo, again alluding to the words of Dante, you must do so without me. It's a great moment.
The selection of Orfeo DVDs now available includes a couple that have been released this year, in connection with the anniversary. The musical and dramatic interest of any one of them is greater than the Harnoncourt classic, but his was the first and will always be a monument in the history of operatic staging. Surely, the 400th anniversary of the real birth of opera warrants owning more than one.
Ionarts will be bringing you reviews of two performances of Monteverdi's Orfeo next month, with Concerto Vocale and René Jacobs at the Aix-en-Provence Festival and with Concerto Italiano and Rinaldo Alessandrini at the Settimana Musicale Senese in Siena.