Marvellous Modernized Monteverdi

SwedenSweden Monteverdi L’Orfeo. Soloists, Wermland Opera Orchestra, Hans Ek (conductor). Wermland Opera, Karlstad 26.3. 2014

Orfeo – Jan Kyhle
Eurydice – Anna-Maria Krawe
Silvia / Pluto – AnnLouice Lögdlund
Shepherd / Charon – Ole Bang
Shepherd / Charon – Christer Nerfont
Nymph / Proserpina – Cecilie Nerfont Thorgersen
La Musica – Birgit Bidder
La Musica – Moto Boy

Arranged by Hans Ek
Directed by Kristofer Steen
Sets and lighting design by Linus Fellbom
Costumes by Behnaz Aram
Sound design by Hans Surte Norin
Swedish Text by Claes Fellbom

Wermland Opera in Karlstad in Western Sweden – not too far from Oslo – has often managed to make productions of standard works that turn things upside-down and make the visitors experience new dimensions of works they thought they knew. Tobias Kratzer’s Rigoletto (review), Peter Konwitschny’s Bohème (review) and Kratzer’s (again) workshop like St John Passion (review) have all been highly interesting and perspective building but the new L’Orfeo is even more revolutionary.

It is sung in Swedish with a newly translated libretto (by Claes Fellbom) that is rather free, the music is arranged by Hans Ek but he is careful to point out in the programme book that all the notes in Monteverdi’s original score are there, even though he has opted for some alternative instruments, like folk music fiddle and hurdy-gurdy, tin-whistle, acoustic guitar, mouth-organ, jew’s harp etc. But Monteverdi’s music has often been arranged during the roughly last 100 years when it has been performed at all. Carl Orff and Ottorino Respighi dressed the score in early 20th century clothing and Hans Ek links the music to baroque tradition as well as present day music – and the Swedish folk music tradition. Thus Orfeo’s and Eurydice’s return from the kingdom of the dead, to give one isolated example, is accompanied by a marching-tune with fiddlers. There have been some percussion added, no doubt to carry the work closer to today’s musical preferences. The opening sinfonia is given even more prominence this way – though it has to be admitted that the original is a swinger too! All the singers are amplified and most of the roles are allotted to two singers, Charon even a person with two heads. There are tremendous visual effects and ear-shattering sonics. Several roles are sung by musical artists and popular singers … Does it sound perverse and controversial? The truth is that all this works marvellously well and the production is a triumph from beginning to end – a feast for the eye as well as for the ear. Orfeo’s descent to the kingdom of the dead is magical indeed. He bangs open a hole in the ground and while he disappears the stage floor is slowly lifted and we see Orfeo slowly sailing down to a world that is far from the Elysian fields above – dark, forbidding, the ground covered with water. Overall there is a closeness in approach that unites the ancient drama with our time. People’s reactions to elemental experiences: life-death, happiness-sorrow, love-hate have been eternal companions through mankind’s history. The settings are ancient but easy to relate to, costumes are timeless – when they are not Monteverdian or even later. The beautiful turn-of-the-century (i.e. around 1900) theatre is also an integrated part of the action, some of La Musica’s numbers delivered from the boxes adjacent to the stage. Since the theatre is quite small even visitors at the back of the stalls get involved in the action and it is easy to see facial expressions.

Among the soloists the heaviest burden rests upon the shoulders of Jan Kyhle in the title role. He is an experienced singer and actor, having appeared abroad as well as in Sweden in numerous productions, including the title role in Parsifal and Siegmund in Die Walküre. One doesn’t normally expect a Heldentenor in early baroque operas but Kyhle has many strings on his bow and is marvellously responsive to the demands of the role. His enunciation of the text is also exemplary. Anna-Maria Krawe has been seen in many productions at Wermland Opera and her Eurydice is very attractive. She also doubled in the role of Speranza.  Another stalwart in the house, AnnLouice Lögdlund, also taking on dramatic roles like Brünnhilde and Turandot, was an impressive Messenger (here called Silvia as in the original libretto) and ‘down under’ she was Pluto, a bass role. The rest of the cast, coming mainly from the musical and popular camps, were well integrated in the totality and it was especially interesting to meet Birgit Bidder and Moto Boy (artist name for Oskar Humlebo) in the important role as Musica.

Due to other assignments I was only able to see one of the last performances, so it’s too late to recommend a visit to Karlstad this spring. However, the reception has been overwhelming from audiences and press alike and I do hope that Wermland Opera will offer a number of further performances in the autumn. If they do, don’t hesitate! Seeing – and hearing – this L’Orfeo has been a great experience and one that will remain in my memory for a long time. Congratulations to all involved!

Göran Forsling

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