MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

La storia di Orfeo: Reframing an Operatic Myth

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Amanda Forsythe and Philippe Jaroussky with Boston Early Music Chamber Ensemble and co-directors Stephen Stubbs and Paul O’Dette

In contemporary times, the connotations of myth have been degraded to suggest something like “fake news.” Still, the truths they contain make the stories passed down as myths an inexhaustible source for inspiration and enlightenment. It seems inevitable that opera, from the start, needed to fall in love with the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in particular and has needed to return to it again and again — much as the legendary hero longs to be reunited with his beloved and bring back their vanished happiness.

But these reiterated operatic Orfeos are no mere repetitions. The brilliant concept underlying Philippe Jaroussky and colleagues’ La storia di Orfeo is to juxtapose parts of three different versions of the story spanning the 17th century and thus to create a new composite.

Jaroussky introduced the project a few years ago, recording it on the Warner label with Diego Fasolis and I Barocchisti. This fall, the countertenor has taken it up again (in somewhat modified form) for a North American tour. He is joined by soprano Amanda Forsythe as Eurydice and the Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Festival, led by co-directors Stephen Stubbs and Paul O’Dette*.

Their performance in Seattle last night — hosted by Seattle Symphony at Benaroya Hall — benefited from the highest level of musical values while at the same time overwhelming the audience with its emotional force. If you have a chance to catch the show’s remaining stops in Boston and the Morgan in New York, this really is one not pass it up.

Jaroussky explains that La storia di Orfeo “was conceived as a kind of opera in miniature or as a cantata” for compact forces. I found the narrative arrangement to have an immediacy and an arc that indeed seemed operatic in effect, even with the minimal (and tastefully done) semi-staging used here.

Chronologically listed, the three source Orfeos were Monteverdi’s landmark court opera from 1607 in Mantua and two later treatments by Luigi Rossi (1597-1653) and Antonio Sartorio (1630-1680) that premiered in 1647 in Paris and in 1672 in Venice, respectively.

The dramaturgical result was not a collage but followed the story’s familiar trajectory, though with different points of emphasis than we would experience from any single one of these three operas on their own. As Jaroussky notes, “Sartorio and Rossi depict the happiness of the young lovers and the scene in which Eurydice is bitten by the snake; Monteverdi, on the other hand, concentrates more on Orpheus’s search for Eurydice in the Underworld.”

An excellent essay in the program (by Jean-François Lattarico, from the album’s liner notes) elaborated on the myth’s musical-theatrical evolution in the 17th century, pointing out that the integral role of Renaissance humanism, Neo-Platonism, and poetry. It also explained the introduction of comic elements and even convoluted subplots post-Monteverdi, as well as the movement toward closed forms.

Yet for all the variety of its pastoral and dance-propelled moments, this Storia di Orfeo projected a profoundly melancholy, tragic demeanor that was further enhanced by the streamlined focus on the lovers — the opposite of the archetypal Romantic journey, building on Beethoven, from darkness to light.

Monteverdi’s “Possente spirto,” the centerpiece of his opera (Lattarico remarks that it borrows Dante’s “metrical structure” and encompasses the “three aspects of music — worldly, human, and instrumental”), also served as a fulcrum here. But there were also counterpart solos by Sartorio and Rossi following Orfeo’s second loss of Eurydice — respectively, “Chiuso, ahimè, di Cocito” and the devastating “Lasciate Averno” — that turned the program’s second half into a vast musical stele of mourning.

Jaroussky sang with heart-rending eloquence and enormous musical intelligence. His delicately weighted countertenor added a sense of vulnerability not often found in tenor Orfeos, but he fully brought out the role’s passion and despair. In one of the many paradoxes that surround this myth and its musical transformations, his intricate embellishments conveyed overpowering emotional honesty rather than florid artifice — as if these words, in this context, could be expressed only in this way.

It was illuminating to experience the iconic moments from Monteverdi’s opera in the context of the more extensive role allotted Eurydice through interpolated pieces from the other two operas, such as the exquisite “Mio ben, teco il tormento” from Rossi’s opera for Paris. Amanda Forsythe gave an equally memorable portrayal. One of the most searingly effective moments was her sudden appearance, after her death from the snakebite, as the “shade of Eurydice,” beckoning to Orpheus to brave the journey into the Underworld. Forsythe, whose voice in previous scenes conveyed the ideal “sweetness” referred to so often in the poetic texts (never cloying), brought out the grief-stricken intensity of Sartorio’s music — visibly moving her beloved and foreshadowing his own great task of moving the dark spirits of Hades.

Forsythe and Jaroussky were additionally given a number of duets, the purity of their vocal production merging into a fascinating hybrid. It’s not surprising that they have collaborated for some years now. (They’ve recorded Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice and, for Boston Early Music Festival, Agostino Steffani’s Niobe, regina di Tebe, among other works.) So it was a very smart idea to draw out their chemistry by interpolating, at the moment of the couple’s re-encounter in Hades, a scene from Steffani’s Orlando generoso in which Angelica and Ruggiero share their feelings of the absence of their respective lovers.

Along with the cast of just two singers, the ensemble for this tour involves a total of ten instrumentalists. The choral numbers that are part of the recording are dispensed with, but in their stead Stubbs and O’Dette have woven into the dramaturgy a fascinating range of contemporary instrumental interludes from across the 17th century. These serve as implicit commentaries to enhance the mood and setting.

An excerpt from a publication of Venetian sonatas “in stile moderno” by Monteverdi’s contemporary Dario Castello, for example, proved to be wonderfully evocative after Orpheus’s vibrant “Vi ricorda, o boschi ombrosi” from the Monteverdi opera. An extraordinarily dramatic sonata by Johann Rosenmüller (who fled the sex police in Leipzig and found refuge in Venice) served as a postlude to “Possente spirto.”

The ensemble played with style and dramatic presence — at times, the various strings emerged in the spotlight as extensions of Orpheus the musician, stretching the range of his lyre. On Baroque harp, Maxine Eilander’s silvery accompaniments added textural differentiation to the bowed strings so that I never felt a lack of color despite the absence of winds.

Not wishing to leave the enraptured audience in unassuaged gloom, Jaroussky, Forsythe, and the band provided a lieto fine after all by way of an encore: the final duet from Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea (“Pur ti miro”), which no one wanted to end.

Complete Program:
La storia di Orfeo: Monteverdi • Sartorio • Rossi

Antonio Sartorio: Sinfonia to L’Orfeo
Sartorio: Cara e amabile catena
Claudio Monteverdi: Rosa del Ciel – Io non dirò
Luigi Rossi: Mio ben, teco il tormento
Rossi: Che dolcezza è la certezza
Rossi: Sinfonia from L’Orfeo
Monteverdi: Vi ricorda, o boschi ombrosi
Dario Castello: Sonata 15 from Sonate concertate…in stile moderno, Libro II
Rossi: M’ami tu?
Rossi: A l’imperio d’amore
Sartorio: Ahimè, Numi, son morta – Misero, oh Dio
Rossi: Lagrime, dove sete?
Biagio Marini: Passacalio from Sonate per ogni sorte di stromento musicale
Sartorio: È morta Euridice
Sartorio: Orfeo tu dormi? – Se desti pietà – Ferma, Euridice
Monteverdi: Sinfonia
Monteverdi: Possente spirto
Johann Rosenmüller: Sonata Settima à 4 in D minor from Sonatae a 2, 3, 4 e 5
Agostino Steffani: Se t’eclisse – Vive stele from Orlando
Sartorio: Numic he veggio
Sartorio: Chiuso, ahimè, di Cocito…Rendetemi Euridice
Rossi: Lasciate Averno

Boston Early Music Festival Musicians:
Paul O’Dette, chitarrone; Stephen Stubbs, chitarrone & Baroque guitar; Robert Mealy & Julie Andrijeski, violin; Sarah Darling, viola; David Morris, violoncello & lirone; Doug Balliett, double bass; Michael Sponseller, harpsichord; Maxine Eilander, Baroque harp

(c)2019 Thomas May — All rights reserved.

Filed under: early music, Monteverdi, review, Stephen Stubbs

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