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.
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.