Orfeo, L'


OrfeoClaudio Monteverdi - L’Orfeo

Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 2009 | Rinaldo Alessandrini, Robert Wilson, Georg Nigl, Roberta Invernizzi, Sara Mingardo, Luigi de Donato, Raffaella Milanesi | Opus Arte

The minimalist staging of Robert Wilson’s opera productions is not something that is to everyone’s taste, but it is certainly unique and idiosyncratic, and no matter how familiar you are with a particular opera, you can be sure that Wilson’s stage direction will provide a new way of looking at a piece and bring out elements or propose ideas that you might never have considered before. It is however not suited to every kind of opera. His production for Aida several years ago at the Royal Opera House was visually striking in its beauty and in the wondrous and carefully considered colour-coded light schemes, but the static nature of the production simply sucked the life out of one particular opera that merits a slightly more vibrant approach, if not necessarily always quite as flamboyant as Zeffirelli’s.

On the other hand, the stripped-down staging works better, it seems to me, when applied to more abstract subjects or at least the more archetypal matters of Greek mythology in opera seria and Baroque opera. Wilson’s work for the Paris Châtelet productions of Alceste and Orphée et Eurydice, for example, is appropriate and perfectly in accordance with Gluck’s reforming of over-elaborate and long-winded opera. The same should apply, one would think, to Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, the work that is considered the first opera proper - first performed in Mantua in 1607 - and, for many, the model to which opera should aspire. All the huge archetypes are there in its mythological subject - Heaven and Hades, with Eros, Fate, Hope and, most significantly, Music itself personified and indeed the main narrative force who introduces and tells the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, as well as the means by which the opera expresses itself.

This is the kind of material that is perfect for Robert Wilson’s interpretations, and all the familiar characteristics of his approach are here in this production for La Scala in 2009 - static figures making strange poses with enigmatic hand movements, stage props reduced to geometric shapes, the colour scheme a limited palette of greys, pale blues and pale green. In contrast to his non-specific approach to Orphée et Eurydice, L’Orfeo is practically period - in the period of Monteverdi, that is - inspired by Titian’s Venus with Cupid and an Organist (1548), with Thrace a Renaissance version of the Garden of Eden, by way perhaps of Gainsborough. On a first viewing, I’m not convinced that such a staging brings anything new from Monteverdi’s famous opera this time, but it is interesting and worth considering.

As for the opera and its performance, well, L’Orfeo is a masterpiece that does indeed wield a heavy influence over the artform, or for at least a hundred and fifty years afterwards. It’s a celebration of man’s ability, intellect and ingenuity, taming nature and the seas, speaking with the voice of the Gods through music and, through Orpheus, even challenging Death itself through his singing and its expression of the finest human passions and sentiments. It’s a worthy subject for what is generally considered the first opera - an artform that would unite so many artistic qualities, not least of which is music and singing. Monteverdi’s opera accordingly lives up to the high standards it sets.

L’Orfeo is more detailed in its scoring and specification of instruments than Monteverdi’s final opera Il Ritorno di Ulisse in Patria, for example, but how it is performed is highly interpretative nonetheless. Early music specialist Rinaldo Alessandrini’s conducting of the opera of La Scala is therefore not for me to criticise, but I would find it hard to find any serious fault with it other than the actual sound mix not quite having the transparency of other versions I’ve heard - notably the Pierre Audi 1997 recording for DVD at the Muziektheater in Amsterdam. I would however state a preference for John Mark Ainsley’s lyrical Orpheus in that version over the rather deeper tenor of Georg Nigl. The contrasts and differences should be appreciated however, as it is through them that new thoughts and ideas still arise out of an opera that is now over 400 years old - and on that basis, this is a fine production.

The quality of the presentation on the Opus Arte Blu-ray is as good as you would expect, with a clear 16:9 High Definition transfer, PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mixes. The only extras on the disc however are a Cast Gallery and an Illustrated Synopsis. The thin booklet presents some background on the history of the opera, but there is no information at all on the production itself.

OrfeoClaudio Monteverdi - L’Orfeo

De Nederlandse Opera, 1997 | Pierre Audi, Stephen Stubbs, John Mark Ainsley, Juanita Lascarro | Opus Arte

It’s appropriate that what is often considered the first opera - or at least the first opera that we can recognise as being more closely associated with the form of the opera as it is widely known today - is a composition in praise of Orpheus and his golden lyre. Written in 1607, bringing together music and drama into an integrated form for the first time, Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo seems to delight in the very essence of the resultant new artform that has been created, the alchemy of music, drama and exquisite singing achieving an almost transcendentally beautiful balance and harmony.

Dealing moreover with the legendary subject of Orpheus, Monteverdi’s opera finds a perfect subject to demonstrate the power of the artform, one that can take in subjects as large as life, death, love and art and truly do justice to their importance in the lives of ordinary people. Set in the meadows, hills and woodlands of Thrace, life is simple but hard for the workers in the fields, but Orpheus through his music is able to transform the misery of the people into a thing of beauty. But he “who once made sighs his food and tears his drink”, has since discovered happiness in his love for Eurydice. The happiness is short-lived however, as Eurydice is bitten by a snake and dies. Grief-stricken, Orpheus descends to the underworld, to bargain with Charon, cross the River Styx and claim her back from Hades for the living.

A mythological subject, there is poetry and wisdom scattered throughout the gorgeous libretto, warning mortals not to “put your faith in fleeting fragile joy that is so soon gone” observing how often in life “we are lifted high only to be cast down”. The music (the story appropriately is introduced by the muse Music herself) and the singing all combining to give the subject and tragedy the necessary emotional depth. The 1997 production recorded here makes good use of the vast stage of the Muziektheater in Amsterdam, Pierre Audi’s staging at the same time simple but effective. The tone of the period instruments and singing are impeccable, John Mark Ainsley’s voice conveying the warmth, lyricism, charm and beauty that you would expect Orpheus to possess.

Released on DVD by Opus Arte as a 2-disc set, the 16:9 enhanced image is excellent, even in the dim lighting showing detail only slightly less impressive than a HD presentation. There are two audio tracks. The DTS 5.1 is a little echoing, although it does give the opera an appropriate cathedral quality, but the PCM stereo track seems to my ears to have much better depth and clarity. Neither can do much about the sometimes heavy clumping that is made by figures striding across the stage, but this is a minor irritation. The extras are brief but useful, including a Synopsis and a 16 minute introduction that looks behind the scenes at the production and the instruments used.