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The Monteverdi Orfeo Film: Spectacular, Surreal, Stylish


A film presentation of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, directed by René Jacobs and staged by the Trisha Brown Company at the Auditorium of the Louvre au Dimanche 21 février was sold out, my husband and I were told, but a quickly presented card from Boston Musical Intelligencer worked magic. The staff was delighted at the offer to write up something for Boston classical-music lovers.

So I was nonplussed to discover that this presentation was hardly au courant; it originally was seen at Théatre Royale de la Monnaie in Brussels under artistic director Bernard Foccroule in 1998, followed with a performance at the festival in Aix-en-Provence. Nonetheless, as it turns out when we returned to Boston and asked more than a dozen local music lovers (so far), almost no one even knew of it. Quele dommâge.

The unity of music and visual presentation, despite being a more “modern” production, is spectacular (as in “denoting a spectacle,” which undoubtedly was true of the first performance in 1607 and the goal of many revivals since), surreal (as in heightened, intensely believable), and stylish (as in comfortable and elegant). I could not help comparing this superb performance to the—dare I say?—disastrous staging of this opera at Glimmerglass a few seasons ago, which was pure punk, Orfeo with his shirt hanging out of his low-hanging dungarees, Euridice chained to the wall in a sado-masochistic, prurient scene, and all.

Every single one of the voices in this Jacobs/Brown presentation is beautiful—mellifluous, with point-on accuracy and clear diction. But astounding to me is that the singers participate fully in the intricate choreographed movements, contributing to the wholeness of the production — that is every member of the cast, including lead singers.

The approach of the choreography was to create highly stylized slicing or running gestures following the dictates of the music: staccato to swagger to rushing, a fast-moving frame of still images. The tone is set immediately by the shepherds, moving in interlacing lines and patterns, snapping or swooping their arms, in an astonishingly sympathetic interpretation of Monteverdi’s score.

Costumes for the chorus are tunic-like, loose white suits with black shirts. The singers’ blackened eye sockets blend into diaphanously whitened faces. Orfeo is in essentially the same outfit, but set apart by its mustard color and Indian-style tunic. Creatures from Hell are in black. Bright solid color is provided by Euridice’s and La Messageria’s gowns and the glittering fanciful costumes of Plutone and Proserpina; however, their appearances are brief enough to keep the overall tone the contrast of black and white. Apollo, who appears at the end to claim his son (the Monteverdi revised ending) is in something resembling a yellow sleeping bag flattened on the surface of the huge round sun.

Orfeo is the mellifluous, dramatic Simon Keenlyside; Juanita Lascarro is Euridice (who appears briefly), but also the stellar singing role of La Musica and the smaller role of Eco. A coveted  role is that of La Messageria; albeit one of the most dramatic moments in the opera, it is nonetheless profoundly, affectedly delivered by Graciela Oddone. Tómas Tómasson is Plutone, Martina Dike is Proserpina (and a nymph), and Paul Gérimon, Caronte (also a shepherd and a spirit). The opera opens with a flying La Musica (the singer in the pit).

This article had been held up in a frustrating attempt to credit the two wonderful shepherds who are so prominent in the first scene; the complete singing cast is not to be found in the website of either the producer, the conductor, the choreographer, or even the purveyors of the DVDs I found. Leave it to Robert Kirsinger, of the Publications Department of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, to direct me to the listing— in the film archive of IFDb. (Bookmark it, all ye fans of culture.) These superb singers, setting the tone of the whole production from the start, were (I believe) tenors Yann Beuron and Rene Linnenbank, although one may be John Bowen.

It was a bit of a tilt listening to the Italian and trying to follow it in French subtitles, amidst a full house of early music afficionados. Ending a day at the Louvre with an event such as this, then to proceed to a dinner somewhere in the 5th or 6th Arrondissement at a civilized hour, is indeed close to heaven. One could wish the same for Orfeo.


6 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. The link to the IMDB follows:

    Comment by Julian Bullitt — February 28, 2010 at 4:43 pm

  2. Thank you.

    Here are some other links I forgot to list:

    When I was retrieving these, I noted that the posting of this article is fourth on the Google selections. In 45 minutes.

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton, executive editor — February 28, 2010 at 5:23 pm

  3. This production also played live at the time at the Théatre des Champs Elysées, Paris, where I saw it. Some of the staging, as I recall, was lovely. My sense then was that, musically, it was over-conducted and over-controlled — would be interested to see the film now, about a decade later.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — March 1, 2010 at 11:58 am

  4. BTW, it’s ‘quel dommage.’

    Comment by picky — March 1, 2010 at 4:33 pm

  5. Should have known. Dommage is more masculine than feminine. BUT, Ms/Mr Picky, did you enjoy the article? Do you know the fillm OR the production??? that’s what I really would like to know.

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton, executive editor — March 1, 2010 at 4:53 pm

  6. Bettina, I looked at some of the youtube clips, and there is indeed a lot to admire in this carefully conceived production. I enjoyed much of the singing I heard — shepherds, Orfeo.

    Some of the reservations I felt a decade ago also returned. The large and virtuostic instrumental ensemble still sounds overmanaged and driven to my ears. Too many beats and accents, not enough cantabile. I am only moderately enchanted by the new instrumental parts created in places by Jacobs or someone else.

    I remember the best thing about the staging/choreography as the aerial ballet — that bit was breathtaking. Yes, it’s wonderful to have singing and dancing integrated as we do here. But the bits I viewed struck me as overly busy. What do all the gestures _mean_ on an emotional level? Less would have been more, as in the aerial passages.

    Well, it’s a damned hard work to stage, but we need to keep trying!

    Comment by Joel Cohen — March 7, 2010 at 7:02 am

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