in: Reviews

November 26, 2012

Orfeo Shines in 1607 Staging


Teresa Wakim and Olivier Laquerre (Kathy Wittman photo)

Monteverdi’s Orfeo was first presented in 1607 on a “narrow stage,” which according to the composer’s dedication on the first printed score of 1609, was constructed within a set of apartments in the Mantuan ducal palace. The use of this less-than-grand dramatic space may have been due to the work’s initial function as an entertainment for an amateur academy—the Accademia degli Invaghiti, or “Academy of the Infatuated Ones”—rather than an official court function; additionally, the grand Mantuan theater that would host the first performance of the composer’s opera, Arianna, would not open until the following year. This limited setting was reproduced for the Boston Early Music Festival’s performance of the work in Jordan Hall on Saturday, November 24th, as the orchestra occupied the center rear stage, with the actors moving across the sides and front of the stage.

Stage director Gilbert Blin embraced this challenge, allowing for moments of practical as well as fantastical staging. Blin also added a Baroque dancer, Carlos Fittante, who embodied various allegorical characters related to each act, such as the god of marriage (Hymen) for nuptial rejoicing of Act I, and the god of death (Thanatos) for the Underworld setting of Act III, in a manner similar to librettist Alessandro Striggio’s addition of the allegorical characters Music and Hope. Anna Watkins’s costumes, modeled after popular designs from the period, also contributed to the group’s historical re-creation of the 1607 performance, and functioned gracefully within Melinda Sullivan’s choreography. Special mention should also be made of Lenore Doxsee’s lighting scheme, which through its attention to the luminosity of the play’s various settings (i.e. the Thracian countryside, the Underworld, and finally, the presence of the sun-god, Apollo), offered a bridge across the ancient “mystical gulf.”

The orchestra was led by artistic directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, both of whom also performed on the chitarrone. With the exception of a few shaky moments in the opening Toccata and Prologue (including some covering of La Musica’s vocal pronouncements), the group played with both elegance and force, offering a broad range of timbral colors and expressive gestures. The chorus was especially effective in its dual role, at times participating in the drama, at other times offering moral commentary after the ancient Greek tradition, and at all times displaying a clear understanding of the differing style of declamation for each role. In keeping with the modest scope of the work’s first performance, the stage performers were few in number, as many of the singers assumed multiple roles.

Jason McStoots (Kathy Wittman photo)

The cast was led by Aaron Sheehan, singing the role of Orpheus. As with so many of his performances, superlatives fail in the description of his vocal and dramatic prowess. Sheehan offered an elegant and effective balance of force and tenderness, making one almost forget that his dramatic pronouncements are sung, rather than spoken. Mireille Asselin assumed the roles of Euridice and La Musica, in both roles offering a gentle, pleasing demeanor and musical affect; in so doing, Asselin perfectly embodied the allegorical idealization of music’s gentility (soavità), as well as the affectionate humility of Orpheus’s consort, as depicted in Alessandro Striggio’s libretto. Shannon Mercer’s performance as the ill-fated Messenger was deeply moving, as the relation of Euridice’s offstage death brought more than one tear to the eyes of this critic. Outstanding performances were also found in Douglas Williams’s commanding presence as the infernal ferryman Caronte, and counter-tenor Ryland Angel’s dexterous navigation of various vocal registers as one of Orpheus’s shepherd companions, as well as the allegorical character Hope (Speranza), who leads the protagonist to the river Styx.

The audience responded with a rousing ovation, showing appreciation and enthusiasm for BEMF’s production and performance of this great work. The cast responded with an encore performance of the closing chorus and dance sequence (a Moresca, or “moorish dance”), offering a rousing send-off to this magnificent production.

Aaron Shehan with Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs (Kathy Wittman photo)

Joel Schwindt is a Ph.D. candidate in Musicology at Brandeis University. In addition to performances as a vocalist and conductor, his writings have been published by the Baerenreiter-Verlag publishing house and the Choral Journal.


  1. It was indeed wonderful. How odd that though “the cast was led by Aaron Sheehan” (“superlatives fail…”) there was no photograph of him. Mention might also be made about BEMF’s decision to provide every audience member with a complete bi-lingual large-format easy-to-read libretto in addition to the sometimes unreadable supertitles projected on the back wall of the stage (the latter pretty far away from the last row of the balcony). Handing out a libretto might have been a nod to the original performance in which an Italian libretto was provided for every attending listener (it was a much smaller group!). Well-deserved ovations!

    Comment by Alan Levitan — November 26, 2012 at 2:10 pm

  2. Happy to comply with Alan’s suggestion to add a picture.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — November 26, 2012 at 3:26 pm

  3. It was, indeed, beautifully performed and attractively staged.
    The cast and the musicians interacted musically and subtly dramatically.
    We could had done without the frequent brandishing of Latin/English
    mottos, unless there’s evidence that such was done in 1607

    Comment by Martin Cohn — November 26, 2012 at 3:30 pm

  4. Martin Cohn has nailed the most significant problem, and I would add that some of the “dancing” on the part of Carlos Fittante was just the sort of stage business I don’t expect at BEMF productions — rare missteps on the part of director Blin.

    Teresa Wakim and Olivier Laquerre also deserve praise. Shehan and Williams can’t be praised enough, the latter for very beautiful and characterful singing as well as his “commanding presence”.

    I love this holiday tradition. I hope the empty seats were the result of the choice of Orfeo, a more familiar repertoire item than we have come to expect.

    Comment by Will — November 26, 2012 at 6:04 pm

  5. I enjoyed Martin Cohn’s historically informed caveat “We could had done without the frequent brandishing of Latin/English mottos, unless there’s evidence that such was done in 1607.” I’d like to extend this principle more broadly (not necessarily to this production, which I didn’t attend): “We could have done without the frequent singing out of tune, unless there’s evidence that such was done in 1607.” “We could have done without the hideous sounds produced on the ______ , unless there’s evidence that such was done in 1607.” “We could have done without the frequent hurling of insults at the audience, unless there’s evidence that such was done in 1607.” We could call this “historically informed annoyance practices.”

    Comment by Michael Monroe — November 26, 2012 at 7:14 pm

  6. I suppose Mr. Cohn was being careful, since the headline tells us we saw the 1607 staging!

    Comment by Jerome — November 26, 2012 at 11:02 pm

  7. I suppose an expected matter of debate and hence a risk in staging, but I suspect many found (as I did)Carlos Fittante’s dancing (and accentual gestures) delightful and a real asset to the presentation. Sheehan, our Boston wonder! but to be very very picky, did any one else find his vocal ornamentation (in his lower range) a little weaker than usual? BEMF audiences do (thank god) not give standing ovations lightly but I thought the Saturday response ungenerous in this regard.

    Comment by Bruno — November 27, 2012 at 9:07 am

  8. If I may offer a few brief remarks in response to the above comments:

    I’m not aware of any tradition of brandishing scrolls with Latin phrases on them on the stage during the Renaissance or Baroque periods. However, many illustrations of theatrical events from the period did include Latin phrases on scrolls around the edges of the illustration itself (“non-diegetic” scrolls, if you will, as they are part of the illustration, and are not meant to suggest that the scrolls were present on stage during the performance); these phrases were most often related to the plot, the event of which the performance was a part, or the performance’s sponsor. Perhaps it is this tradition that served as Blin’s inspiration.

    On the subject of the dancer, we do know that (non-singing/speaking) dancer/s commonly appeared in Renaissance and Baroque theater (including opera), as found in illustrations and accounts from these periods. As Blin rightly noted in his program notes, we have very little information on the stagecraft of the 1607 production (on which this performance seems to have been based), so it is at least within the realm of possibility that a dancer was used.

    Comment by Joel Schwindt — November 27, 2012 at 9:43 am

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