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A Ritual of Music

Monteverdi’s Orfeo at the BMA

by Roger Brunyate

Orfeo at the BMA, March 7 & 8, 2003

Other writings by Roger Brunyate

Claudio Monteverdi’s opera Orfeo, subtitled “a fable in music” and first produced at the Mantuan court in 1607, may not be the first opera ever written, but it is the first still to appear on operatic stages today. Even so, it is a formidable undertaking, given the splendor of its first performance and the unusually wide range of instruments called for in the score. Recent research, however, has indicated that Monteverdi probably performed the work with very small forces. As such, it is thus a fitting undertaking for the Peabody Chamber Opera, which has produced a series of early operatic masterpieces every year since 1996.

Rubens drawing of Francesco Gonzaga, who commissioned
OrfeoMonteverdi had been employed by the Gonzaga family at their court in Mantua since 1590, first as a string player and later as choirmaster, in which capacity he wrote his third, fourth, and fifth book of madrigals and Orfeo, his first opera, written to a text by Alessandro Striggio, the court secretary. Unlike his later operas such as The Coronation of Poppea, which were written for the public theaters in Venice, Orfeo was intended for private performance before a wealthy patron in a relatively small room. It is thus both sumptuous and intimate at the same time. Much of the sumptuousness comes from the instrumentation, which calls for recorders, cornetti, trumpets, trombones, and a double harp, in addition to the usual complement of strings, harpsichords, and lutes. This enables the composer to call on quite different colors for the scenes in the underworld and those on earth. The intimacy of the piece is both heard in the music and seen on the stage. The characteristic texture is set in the first two acts, with one principal singer (Orpheus himself) surrounded by a small but flexible madrigal group which provides all the other named roles, and also splits up into duets, trios, and quartets. Scenically, the opera differs from other court pieces by calling for very few transformation scenes or other stage effects, and even Apollo’s descent from the heavens in the final act was probably added for a later performance.

Portrait of Monteverdi in his later years by Bernardo
StrozziThe opera is cast in a prologue and five short acts, probably intended to be performed continuously without intermission. In the first two acts, Orpheus celebrates his marriage to Euridice. But then a messenger arrives to say – in an extended recitative which proclaims Monteverdi’s operatic genius in no uncertain fashion – that Euridice has been bitten by a serpent and is dead. In the third and fourth acts, Orpheus descends to the underworld, charming first the ferryman Charon with his singing, and later Proserpine, who intercedes with her husband Pluto. Orpheus receives permission to lead Euridice back to earth, on condition that he never look round. Inevitably, he breaks this injunction, and Euridice dies a second time. Orpheus is on the point of ending his life in the final act when his father Apollo enters and takes him up to the heavens, where Euridice is also enshrined as a constellation of stars.

Late Roman mosaic showing Orpheus with his lyreSuch is the plot. But what is Orfeo really about, and why is the Orpheus myth or variants of it found in so many cultures other than our own? It has to do with the great mystery of death, with life continuing after death and despite death, with the possibility of resurrection, with the cycle of the seasons. It has to do with the apparently blind operation of fate. It has to do with love and the courage which love inspires. It has to do with looking forward and looking back, as more than a single event which sealed Euridice’s fate, but rather a constant and necessary dilemma for mankind in the middle of life’s path. It is, in short, a religious work, and performance of any Orpheus drama is a religious ritual, whose outcome is already known to the audience, but whose value lies in the re-enactment.

Sketch of Ryan de Ryke, who plays the title roleBut Orfeo as an opera is something more. Orpheus is recognized as the archetypal musician, and the opera is essentially an allegory of the power of music. It opens with a prologue sung by Music herself. The wedding celebrations of Orpheus and Euridice take place entirely in music, through madrigals and dances, apparently as spontaneous as the soft breath of Spring, but in reality intricately structured by the composer. When Euridice dies and Orpheus descends to the underworld to reclaim her, his aria to Charon, “Possente spirito,” is one of the most impressive coloratura showpieces ever written, yet deeply moving. Roughly stanzaic in form, Monteverdi decorates each verse with countermelodies for different instruments, and writes out vocal embellishments of increasing virtuosity instead of leaving these to the performer. And the apotheosis, when Orpheus is taken into the heavens by Apollo, is a duet of a similar exultant virtuosity, a joyous hymn to the triumph of music.

Previous baroque productions by the Peabody Chamber Opera, at the Walters Art Gallery or elsewhere, have attempted to reproduce the court style of white wigs and brocade costumes. To emphasize the ritual element in Orfeo, however, and enable the music to echo across centuries and cultures, we shall give this opera a more abstract presentation, calling upon elements from Asian theater and relying upon strong colors and bold gestures rather than the niceties of court etiquette. This approach was suggested by Webb Wiggins, director of Peabody’s early music program, who will be conducting the show from the harpsichord and organ. I myself will be calling upon the assistance of movement specialist Christine Glazier to help develop a style which is at the moment little more than a gleam in our respective eyes. But whatever production approach we devise in the end, I am confident that Monteverdi’s Orfeo will still come through, because its message is for all time and its language is the common tongue of music.

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