Opera / The Berkshire Review in Australia

Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

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Orfeo and Eurydice, and the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra. Photo by Steven Godbee.
Orfeo and Eurydice, and the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra. Photo by Steven Godbee.

L’Orfeo, Favola in musica

Title page from the 1609 edition of L'Orfeo.
Title page from the 1615 edition of L’Orfeo.

Music by Claudio Monteverdi
Libretto by Alessandro Striggio

City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney: 19 September 2012

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra on period instruments
Paul Dyer – Artistic Director, conductor, harpsichord and organ
Brendan Ross – staging
Justin Nardella – styling and costumes

Markus Brutscher – Orfeo
Sara Macliver – Eurydice and La Musica
Fiona Campbell – La Messaggiera and Proserpina
Wolf Matthias Friedrich – Caronte and Plutone
Ninfa – Siobhan Stagg
Apollo – Morgan Pearse
Eco – Robert Macfarlane
Choro di Pastori – Robert Macfarlane, Richard Butler, Tobias Cole, Morgan Pearse
Choro di Ninfe – Sarah Ampel, Anna Sandström, Paul Sutton, Nick Gilbert, Richard Butler
La Speranza – Tobias Cole
Choro di Spiriti Infernali – Paul Sutton, Nick Gilbert, Tobias cole, Richard Butler, Morgan Pearse

L’Orfeo is a performer’s piece. Composed at a time when the composition of music meant something quite different to what it does now, or in the 19th Century, though certain aleatory pieces of the 20th Century left very much of the act of creation to the performer these do seem to be considered somewhat freakish by many — to many programmers of concerts and some in audiences in particular — and popular opinion now gives very rigidly defined roles to composer and performer, to the point that many expect a very narrow field of professional activities of each. Perhaps it is partly the force of professional specialization which seems so strong nowadays, especially in the sciences. We wouldn’t want to turn into a race of Fachidioten, though.

From Act III of teh 1607 edition.
From Act III of the 1615 edition.

Monteverdi, his contemporaries and his predecessors, didn’t feel any need to write out whole scores with every note for every instrument at every moment, often writing only the bass line and the top melody, with the chords to be filled in by the performer — and this filling is not trivial or formulaic. The composer didn’t so much allow for variation in performance as expect this of his musicians. The musicians had immense knowledge of what we would call composition to be expected to play with far less information than is in a Brahms or Beethoven score, for example, the ornamentation of their melodic line, or the keyboardists’ finding fitting harmonies for the continuo, clarifying the harmonic structure of the piece without distracting from the main event. Choice of overall tempo for L’Orfeo, though it seems Monteverdi had a very specific idea for proportional tempo changes between the various arias and choruses and ritornello, is a very important choice, making the audience’s first impression of the tone of the interpretation. Instrumentation has room for variation, though several instruments are vital for special colors, to cover the incredible pan-spectral tonal range Monteverdi clearly intended, including the beautiful Baroque harp, the renaissance instruments, which were already old in Monteverdi’s day, like the lirone, sakbuts, cornetts and also the frightful (in both senses) shawm-like regal. The music seems to call for in any case almost an even balance between blown, bowed and plucked instruments. With the man himself gone — as Maestro and composer he would direct the performance of his operas himself — and a three hundred year gap between these original performances and the modern rediscovery of the opera, even more is up in the air, or rather up to debate, since the dimension of historical research is introduced. Understanding Monteverdi’s and the opera’s milieu and the exciting, innovative music Monteverdi created while simultaneously, at least in the same opera, finding fresh expressive purpose to the high renaissance polyphony (of which he was said to be the master) which the “Camerata” of Counts Bardi and Corsi would have us believe was old, while also using the Camerata’s better ideas about recitative. Put another way, what was the original need to make music like this?1

Despite the opera’s field day for creatively minded performers — or perhaps there is no spite to it at all—, L’Orfeo is such expressive music, so clear and so specific in its expression, as much as Nature is, or was — this was music born of pre-industrial fresh air —, and so full of character, can an expressive performance hope, or need hope, for more than the fulfillment of this original expressed idea whose standard is set by Nature herself? I think there is still infinite variety to expression, as there is infinite variety in Nature, as Nature creates her own niches to fill.

Performances of the opera do vary immensely, staged or unstaged. One could say the fantastic Harnoncourt production in Zurich from the late 70’s, which is readily available with video, set the standard, but he more merely helped uncover the standard which Monteverdi had set himself. One could hear immediately from the opening Gonzaga fanfare before the opera, even if it isn’t part of the music itself, that this performance of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and Paul Dyer had its own character. They slyly integrated the the fanfare into the drama, or rather “fable” as Monteverdi called it, playing it in a fresh and unapologetic way, and this blind and total commitment carried right through to the end to create a moving uninterrupted whole. The steep crescendo from the very low rumbling drums and symbol up to the bright, lively outburst of the horns seemed to have all the natural inevitability of the dawn. The pastoral poetry is so effortlessly integrated with the music and plot; sun and cloud, sun and moon, light and shadow, the bright but changeable upper world and the dark, immutable underworld. The music as played powerfully under Paul Dyer’s tasteful flair for the dramatic and the orchestra’s sunny quality, with a turned out, even extroverted quality, even with this very small orchestra, their tone was full, more than powerfully enough to support the wild, modern costuming of the singers. On the other hand, here in the first scene, there were one or two points where Dyer’s harpsichord continuo was beautifully florid and ornate, but swallowed up some of the singers’, especially Sara Macliver’s as La Musica, lines. Macliver sang with very expressive modulation and a wide dynamic range, if the peaks were a touch strained, contributing even more than her costume (mirrored gold and red scales in a very close, modern cut) to her character’s unworldly quality. In contrast, though not at all incongruous — in fact making perfect sense—, was the quite slow, stately tempo of the orchestral ritornello, which among other functions, serves to represent Nature, her perenniality, and the landscape, the environment as we would say now, powerful and simple music, peaceful, but very slightly melancholy as a melody, more than enough to fill in as scenery in this semi-staged production.

Pastori and Ninfa in Monteverdi's L'Orfeo. Photo by Steven Godbee.
Pastori and Ninfa in Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo. Photo by Steven Godbee.

There is no scenery, nor any sort of digital projections, but all the characters have costumes and have quite a lot of freedom to move about in the first two acts on the raised platform behind the orchestra and the empty space on the stage in front of the orchestra, and a little gap between the keyboards (two harpsichords for the first two acts, met later by the organ and regal) and the two violins. Markus Brutscher had a tonal range of many clear, subtle colors, and a strong voice, but he used these abilities to expressive, artistic purpose, so that his first “aria” “Rosa del ciel, gemme del giorno…”  expressed beautifully the chiaroscuro of his past longing and present joys, reflected so nicely in the pastoral chorus “Lasciate i monti” with its jaunty dance rhythms, inviting the stars to dance, and ending “E lunge omai disgombre / De gli affanni a del duol nebbie a l’ombre.” And his singing met the extraordinarily expressive playing of the orchestra, in the ritornello, but also the sinfonias between acts. The close ensemble playing showed a particularly close rapport and they orchestra sounded the best I’ve heard them over the past year or so. “Orchestra of soloists” is a bit of a cliché perhaps, but its undeniably true here at least:  Jamie Hey, for example, plays the cello continuo, yet in past concerts has played the virtuosic solo parts in cello concerti. Here, though no concerto, he contributed much to the accompaniment of Orfeo’s songs in particular. Tobias Cole sings Pastore I, a soprano role which opens Act I, with his high counter-tenor, with great technical confidence and a clear, very bright tone which compliments very nicely the period instruments and the interpretation. Siobhan Stagg sang the Ninfa, who sings the following solo, with her very full tone, while a delicacy to her tone quality made for a convincing nymph, rising above the worldly modern white satin bride’s maid dress, against the white, cream, off-white waistcoated shepherds. The ensemble singing of the nymphs and shepherds, was pleasant in its contrasting tones even if Tobias Cole at the beginning dominated the others somewhat.

Though Eurydice gets only 6 lines in these first two Thrace acts, they are important to the opera and its music, though still it seems odd she has such a small role, with just one other short song after they part a second time in Hades in Act IV. The opera is called L’Orfeo, “The Orfeo,” literally, rather than “Orpheus and Eurydice,” as Gluck would later choose to name his version. The music is tightly focussed on Orfeo and his feelings and encounters and he often sings of Eurydice as “la mia vita,” and this is a music-fable rather than a play, or Camerata-style drama. In Act II, Fiona Campbell made a memorable Messaggiera, as was her Proserpina in Act IV. She has a beautiful full voice giving terrible fraught anxiety to “Ahi cosa acerbo!” and a range of other emotions, with very simple effect just within her voice, and with simple movements and gestures on the stage. And along with the irresistible orchestral playing, they were responsible for a very moving scene, leaving Orfeo to a resigned and wrenching “tu se’ morta, mia vita, ed io respiro?” Paul Dyer and his orchestra and Fiona Campbell and Brutscher in particular, didn’t hold back in the slightest, giving full reign to the full range of emotions in the music, which they seemed to feel very closely with the characters of the story, and expressing this with immediacy and intensity, so that there is no question of “relevancy” of the opera. Campbell’s very clear Italian helped much, so we could see how modern this monophonic singing sounded and does sound now.

Violinists Brendan Joyce (guest concertmaster, and violino piccolo after the introduction) and Aaron Brown played extremely expressively in the orchestral sinfonia. Their ornamentation sounded natural and lovely, Joyce in particular, but they also played duet-wise in a wonderful intertwining of their florid lines, very fitting and beautiful, not to mention virtuosic.

The moving playing was sustained for Act III after the interval. Orfeo, so heroic and so vulnerable and desperate with his feelings always so close to the skin is a difficult role especially in this short act. All his persuasion against the stony laws of the underworld take place within this act, seemingly all the more difficult against the solid, brutal Caronte, as sung by Wolf Matthias Friedrich. Unlike nearly all the cast in the first two acts, Friedrich is almost completely immobile, with a rigid upright posture, barely turning his head between Orfeo and the audience, almost as if singing into middle distance.

Plutone and Proserpina. Photo by Steven Godbee.
Plutone and Proserpina. Photo by Steven Godbee.

In Act IV, Proserpina, again Fiona Campbell, was very memorable with a human quality paired to the divine regal quality, as if she were resigned to her fate (to spend the sunless portion of the year in the underworld) but here making the most of her situation. Despite the clichéd gangster costumes, a certain amount of her pathos comes off on Plutone, Wolf Friedrich again, who brings to the character a touch of poignancy with his deep warmer voice in the role. The thuggishly dressed Spiriti Infernali, who permanently populate the underworld, were more heavy handed, more infernali than spiriti so it was a difficult to feel or hear their more pathetic qualities, their “più gelati menti” (as La Musica put it) which should be made at least slushy by Orfeo’s singing. Especially considering Brutscher’s singing of Orfeo’s first song in the underworld, so desperate, but indefatigable, yet of uncertain hope, and all the more convincing that way. Marshall McGuire’s harp solo during that song, quite a long one was very beautiful in itself and very sensitively responsive to Brutscher’s singing. Using the full register of the baroque harp, which has a much more organic, human, sweet tone than the 19th century orchestral harp, while being much softer, the raw, naked aspect of the instrument with its bare strings plucked directly by both hands expressed in tone and melodic articulation Orfeo’s hopeless plight, contrasting with the harpsichord and theorbos which tend to set much of the tonal attitude of the music otherwise. The continuo through this singing, shared by cello, lirone, gamba or sakbut, with organ (a beautiful wood-piped positive), harpsichord(s), regal or theorbo, occasionally harp mixed in, depending on character and mood, was expressive as it could be without distracting from the main event; there was a close rapport between orchestra and singers.

Here at this most emotional point of the opera, the musicians allowed themselves to be carried away by the music, lost in a whole greater than the sum of its (very many) parts. Here at the tragic pit of the work, I found the playing of the music so satisfying in a way which later versions of the story told as opera — indeed the story itself as it comes down to us — cannot manage beyond wrenching. Here Monteverdi is moving.

Orfeo is left slumped against the organ through the next scene, until the very end when he is stellifyed (as Chaucer might say) by Apollo (who descends in gold-sequined jacket and shoes). The original, more tragic, 1607 ending where the baccanti come out of the Thracian wilderness seems to be less in favor these days, though it should be possible to use it successfully with a bit of imagination, assuming something can be done for music for the scene. Of course the ending of this double tragedy is very tricky, as Haydn and Gluck, despite their dramatic and musical genius, would find. Having said that, I don’t consider the 1609 version used here, where Apollo descends on a cloud, to be a “happy ending” in the pejorative sense, it is more ambiguous than that with the melancholic, even subdued, qualities to the music here. Apollo’s somewhat reproachful “Troppo, troppo gioisti / Di tua lieta ventura…” feels a little hollow, even callous, as reason consoling such a tragic character as Orfeo, even given Brutscher’s Orfeo’s (not excessive) effervescence of the first act. Though the shredded and torn up (figuratively speaking) Orfeo, expressed with restraint so well by Brutcher, made the father and son rising off together convincing. Musically, Monteverdi also gives some emotional sense to the final chorus, even as it bubbles up from Paul Dyer’s harpsichord into more “extroverted” music, which he continues in repeats over the casts’ bows, not out of line with the festive flavor of the performance. It is somewhat in the ilk of “A great while ago the world began, / With, hey, ho the wind and the rain, / But that’s all one, our play is done, / And we’ll strive to please you every day.”

The Austra;ian Brandenburg Orchestra and cast of L'Orfeo. Photo by Steven Godbee.
The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and cast of L’Orfeo. Photo by Steven Godbee.
  1. See Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s The Musical Dialog: Thoughts on Monteverdi, Bach and Mozart which describes the work and performance of L’Orfeo brilliantly.
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