MONTEVERDI
L'Orfeo

Concerto Vocale
Collegium ocale Gent
R. Jakobs, dir.

Orfeo: C. Allemano
Euridice/Eco: P. Biccirè
Messaggera/Musica: G. Oddone
Apollo: P. Knudsen
Proserpina: M. Martins
La Speranza: C. Laporte
Plutone: S. Milling
Caronte: P. Gérmon
Ninfa: A. Cambier

New York, Brooklyn Academy of Music

Trisha Brown's well-traveled production of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo received an enthusiastic reception during Brooklyn Academy of Music's spring season. Even though this was only her second time working with lyric drama (the first was as choreographer for Lina Wertmuller's edition of Carmen), Brown very effectively conveyed the essence of this of this opera, one of the earliest to be written. For this production Brown melded chorus with dancers using identical costumes and a common language of gesture. In the same vein, Roland Aeschlimann's set was minimal but suggestive. If the visual side was on the cutting edge of contemporary presentations, the musical portion under René Jacobs was a careful reconstruction of what seventeenth-century audiences might have heard. Maybe the most memorable aspect of this L'Orfeo is Brown's invention of a flying figure, La Musica, which introduced each scene. Suspended on cables from the flies, Katrina Thompson swoops up and down, flips around and hangs inverted for extended periods. Her body harness that makes this possible is concealed under bunched drapery that at first glance seems to refer to Renaissance depictions of angels but may actually be a sly reference to dancers' baggy, rubberized rehearsal pants.

In a seminar given in connction with these performances, Brown described her working methods and the research that went into creating this production. After an extensive study of the libretto, Brown worked out movements-simpler for the chorus and more athletic for the dancers-to express the text. While it would take several viewings to absorb the linkages between gesture and word, the overall impression is one of careful coordination between the two. Most important, the resulting concept is more dramatic than the usual choreographed opera. For the Musica figure described above, Brown was inspired by the ceiling in the Camera degli Sposi in Mantua's Palazzo Ducale, site of the first performances of L'Orfeo. Although Mantegna depicted no angels in is fresco, this production utilizes his sky blue background and the circular frame to set off the dancer.

On his part, conductor René Jacobs attempted to recreate the aural impression of the first performances in the Palazzo Ducale, where a sizeable orchestra was available. Per Jacobs, some of the players must have been placed in adjoining rooms thus creating an echo effect. To reproduce this, half of the orchestra sat with their backs to the audience to replicate that sound during the repetitions of the sinfonie. Instruments were further divided with strings prominent during the terrestrial scenes placed on the left and others associated with the underworld including the organ on the right. This setup corresponded nicely with the onstage arrangement of earthly realm on the left and the Kingdom of Death to the right. The upper balcony hosted a brass and drum fanfare in the opening moments of L'Orfeo. One of the more interesting features of this production was the treatment of the ending. In the libretto for the first performance in 1607, the five-act opera ends with Orfeo being chomped to death by the Furies for having cursed marriage and female companionship. In the printed score of 1609 this is replaced by a more conventional ending with Orfeo being welcomed into heaven by his father Apollo minus Euridice. Brown presented both in sequence, the happy alternative preceding the tragic one, although this seemed to be a cop-out. Otherwise the story line generally followed the Orfeo legend, but with the initial wedding festivities prominent and the denizens of the underworld less menacing than in the Gluck version.

Brown and Jacobs intended that all elements of this production would have equal importance, but inevitably the visual side was the more interesting. Brown divided movement into two components: gesture with the upper bod/y and rhythm with the lower. Dancers and chorus were arranged in lines, usually perpendicular to the audience. In the first act the players ran in demi-plié to exchange places with each other in two parallel lines. Later the dancers used lifts to allow arms and legs to jut out, but order was quickly restored. In the pitch-black Kingdom of the Dead, dancers in gray beekeeper outfits crawled on the floor as Orfeo led Euridice out. The soloists seemed perfectly comfortable with Brown's direction. Aeschlimann's simple set with massive wall to separate earth from underworld perfectly complemented Brown's direction. Designed with Gerd Meier, his lighting intensified the contrast between the two realms; occasional comic effects keyed into Striggio's text. Aeschlimann outfitted dancers and chorus in loose white jackets and pants, whose simplified, modern look also had a timeless feel. For the soloists, the choices were not as happy-they ranged from the clever for Proserpina to the downright eccentric for Euridice. Unfortunately, this was not an evening of great singing, and only Patricia Biccirè in the brief role of Euridice stood out. As Orfeo, Carlo Allemano dominated the scene with his yellow suit and commanding stature, but both his movements and voice lacked incisiveness. The musical high point of the opera, "Possente spirto"--Orfeo's expansive pleading with Caronte to be admitted into the Underworld which doubles as a catalogue of eventeenth-century vocal ornament, fell flat.

David Lipfert

Associazione culturale Orfeo nella rete
http://www.orfeonellarete.it/
info@orfeonellarete.it
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