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Ionarts in Provence: l'Orfeo

Monteverdi's tomb in the Frari, Venice, photo by Michael Lodico
In honor of the 400th anniversary of the premiere of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence has revived a delightful production from 1998 that contains all of the ingredients for memorable performances. Considered the seed of its genre, Orfeo opened with an antiphonal toccata of sackbuts and snare to the side of the audience, and the enchanting ritornello under the light touch of conductor René Jacobs and his Concerto Vocale orchestra. As an acrobatic nymph soared overhead - see clip of flying nymph and hear ritornello - Music (Marie-Claude Chappuis) introduces herself and foretells of how Orpheus conquered Hell with his singing. Now enter the chorus of nymphs and shepherds (the excellent English Voices group), who sing in happiness because Eurydice has finally accepted Orpheus’s love, and for the god of marriage, Hymen, to bless the wedding festival. Dancers then join the scene with the chorus singing the brisk balletto “Lasciate I monti” (Leave the mountains, leave the fountains, charming, happy nymphs). It was disappointing to hear the second section of the balletto, “Qui miri il sole” (Here let the sun behold), taken in a slower, unrelated tempo, which caused the charming scene to lose strength and sound disjointed. A shepherd then persuades Orpheus (Ed Lyon) to share his joy in song, which he does by addressing the sun as “Rosa del ciel” (Rose of heaven), after which Eurydice (Ruby Hughes) sings of her devotion to Orpheus.

What is immediately striking about Roland Aeschlimann’s scenography, costumes, and lighting is its simplicity of color. For example, Orpheus was dressed in gold and his father Apollo in darker gold; Eurydice is in violet and her Messenger in lighter violet; and the chorus and dancers are all in white. The clean set and costumes went well with the transparent music of Monteverdi, a composer considered to be a bridge between the Renaissance and Baroque.

Orpheus looking up to Apollo in heaven, Festival d'Aix-en-Provence
Euridyce’s messenger (again, Marie-Claude Chappuis) disrupts the festive mood by dramatically telling Orpheus of Eurydice’s death by serpent bite, while she was picking flowers. Monteverdi creates an unstable harmonic situation in this section by ending a long modulation on the word “morta” of “La tua diletta sposa è morta” (Your beloved bride is dead). This signifies a new reality for Orpheus – who then drops to the ground in grief – both dramatically and musically. The chorus later sings the emotionally piercing “Ahi caso acerbo, ahi fat’empio e crudele” (Ah, bitter blow! Ah, wicked, cruel Fate!) as the chorus of nymphs and shepherds mirror and thus multiply the intensity of Orpheus’s grief. Hope (again, Marie-Claude Chappuis) then leads Orpheus as far as she is allowed to Charon (Konstantin Wolff), the boatman who will not allow Orpheus’s passage to the Underworld to rescue Eurydice.

Overall, the melismatic and ornamented passages of tenor Ed Lyon’s performance of “Possente spirto,” Orpheus’s plea to Charon, sounded more technical than lyrical, which made one miss a generous amount of resonance and bloom (Stéphane Degout portrays Orpheus in three of the six performances). Nevetheless, Charon was indeed put to sleep by Orpheus’s singing: thus Orpheus was able to sneak into the Underworld, where there was a chorus of spirits dressed in black rummaging around on the ground, reminiscent of a Renaissance depiction of the Damned.

Other Reviews:

Marie-Aude Roux, L'"Orfeo" de Monteverdi enchante Aix de sa fable (Le Monde, July 8)
Prosperpina (Anna Stephany) gently persuades her husband, Pluto (Luca Tittoto), to release Eurydice, who does so as long as Orpheus does not look back at Euridyce during their ascent from the Underworld. During the ascent Orpheus, who is relishing the conquering of Love over the Underworld, looks left and right while Eurydice is sure to stay behind his field-of-vision. After hearing the noise of a gong, Orpheus turns around fully, and Eurydice is rushed back to Pluto and Prosperpina. Again in grief, Orpheus decides to abandon love and turn to nature, yet is taken to heaven by the intervention of his father Apollo (Christophe Gay), with whom he sings. Once again, the chorus of nymphs and shepherds rejoice ecstatically in song and dance, and the opera ends with a Moresca dance movement with tambourine.

Mezzo-soprano Mary-Claude Chappuis as Music, Messenger, and Hope sang with the most conviction, while bass Konstantin Wolff, as Charon, had the most presence in the open-air Théâtre de l’Archevêché. Trisha Brown’s stage direction and choreography were always sensible and strongly helped the opera to reach its potential. Also enjoyable was the large continuo section of two harpsichords, low strings, positiv organ, theorbo, archlute, and a nicely played Baroque harp, of which a variety of combinations were used. All singers except Lyon and Chappuis were participants in l’Académie européene de musique in Aix.

More reviews from the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence will follow.

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