“No undertaking by man is attempted in vain,
Nor against him can Nature further arm herself.”
So sings the chorus, albeit in Italian, at a pivotal point in Claudio Monteverdi’s operatic landmark, Orfeo. It’s hard to imagine a more forthright expression of the optimistic humanism that pervaded the Italian Renaissance. Today, what with climate change and global terrorism, things seem very different. However, on the basis of Saturday night’s astonishing performance of this work at the Boston University Theater, which crowned the 2015 Boston Early Music Festival’s splendid traversal of Monteverdi’s three surviving operas, I’m willing to entertain the thought that perhaps at least no undertaking by BEMF Executive Director Kathleen Fay is attempted in vain.
The legend of the greatest musician who ever lived, a demigod born of Apollo who loved and lost the nymph Eurydice, has long sparked the interest of mortal composers. As early as 1600, Jacopo Peri offered his take on the tragic tale in his second opera, Euridice. Among the many others drawn to the myth: Gluck, Haydn, Liszt, Offenbach, Stravinsky, and the English composer Harrison Birtwistle—the latter with two operas, no less. But Monteverdi’s masterpiece, composed in 1607 for the court of Duke Vincenzo I of Mantua, towers over the rest. It wasn’t the first, but it is undoubtedly the best, having even found its way into the penumbra of the operatic standard repertoire.
There were recordings of Orfeo almost as soon as technological advances made long-duration recording possible. For example, in 1939 a more-or-less complete account was released featuring the orchestra of La Scala in Milan and a slate of Italian singers under the baton of Ferruccio Calusio [excerpts here]. In 1954 Paul Hindemith conducted the very first recording of Orfeo on period instruments, a performance in which Nicolaus Harnoncourt played viola da gamba that was finally released long after Hindemith’s death [here]. In 1969 Harnoncourt led his Concentus Musicus of Vienna and a wonderful ensemble of singers including soprano Cathy Berberian and the great tenors Kurt Equiluz and Nigel Rogers in the recording on which I cut my early-music eyeteeth [here].
Of course our understanding of 17th-century performance practice has come a long way since then. Still, Rogers’s way with Baroque ornamentation has always been my benchmark. But Saturday night’s performance demonstrated that the deft decorative hand which once set his performances apart from almost all others is now shared by quite a few top-drawer singers of early music. To single out Saturday’s star, it’s hard to imagine a better reading of the central part of Orfeo himself than the one given by the young American tenor Aaron Sheehan. In Act III, as Orfeo was pouring out his bereft soul to Caronte, the divine ferryman and gatekeeper of hell, the audience came to understand how mere music might melt even the icy heart of such a god. Certainly I was moved.
Thomas Forrest Kelly’s perceptive program note makes the point that Orfeo’s impassioned appeal to Caronte is this opera’s quivering heart, the pivot on which it turns. Monteverdi’s writing here showcases flashy solo parts written expressly for the virtuosic instrumentalists of the duke’s court. On Saturday those parts were dispatched with grace and impressive aplomb by violinists Robert Mealy and Julie Andrijeski, cornettists Alexandra Opsahl and Kiri Tollaksen, and harpist Maxine Eilander. Opsahl and Tollaksen are members of the Dark Horse Consort, a period wind ensemble that joined trumpeter Timothy Will and the strings and keyboards of the Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble in Jordan Hall’s orchestra pit.
Or they would have if Jordan Hall had an orchestra pit. It doesn’t, of course, but then again, neither did the duke’s court. On Friday night, Gilbert Blin’s direction and sets, Anna Watkins’s costumes, Lenore Doxsee’s lighting, and Melinda Sullivan’s choreography made an awful lot out of very little. In fact, having seen this simple, carefully stylized production, I’m not sure I’d want to see anything more elaborate. Genial co-directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs wielded long-necked chitarrones, Stubbs taking the lion’s share of the actual direction and keeping things moving along very nicely.
One thing that struck me not only about this production of Orfeo but also about BEMF 2015’s productions of Monteverdi’s other two surviving operas, Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria and L’incoronazione di Poppea, was the immense depth of the casting. Ordinarily a theater’s staging of Orfeo or any other opera would feature stronger singers, stars if possible, in the more prominent parts, with weaker singers, even novices, in peripheral roles. Not at BEMF, though. Singers with more prominent billing in one opera of the trilogy filled smaller parts, even multiple roles, in the others. Nobody warmed the bench! For example, Mireille Asselin and Matthew Brook, who were La Musica and Caronte respectively in Orfeo, had been Minerva and Nettuno respectively in Ulisse. Shannon Mercer and Teresa Wakim, who were Silvia and Proserpina respectively in Orfeo, had been Ottavia and Drusilla respectively in Poppea. As a result, there wasn’t a clinker anywhere on the stage. As the proverb has it, a cord of three strands—in this case, Orfeo, Ulisse, and Poppea—is not easily broken.
The strength of the casting made for a remarkably tight, cohesive ensemble on stage, which brings me to my final words of assessment. Listening to the work of the chorus in passages like the pathos-laden “Ahi caso acerbo” (“Ah bitter fate”), a gripping lament at Euridice’s death, was a constant reminder that in 1607, when Monteverdi wrote Orfeo, he was at the height of his powers, with the publication of his historic Fifth Book of Madrigals only two years behind him. The singers’ skillful handling of his treacherous metrical crosscurrents, their delicate burnishing of his quicksilver chromaticism—surely this was far better than whatever the duke may have heard in 1607.
With these performances of Orfeo, Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria, and L’incoronazione di Poppea, the Boston Early Music Festival has set the bar very high indeed. Will the production of André Campra’s opera La Carnaval de Venise that’s been announced for BEMF 2017 do as well? Here’s hoping!