Reconstructed Monteverdi Brings Humanity to a Venerable Myth

United StatesUnited States Monteverdi, L’Orfeo: Soloists, Apollo’s Singers, Apollo’s Fire/Jeannette Sorrell (conductor), Kulas Hall, Cleveland Institute of Music, Cleveland, Ohio, 13.4.2018. (MSJ)

Orfeo (Karim Sulayman) attempts to lead Euridice (Erica Schuller) out of the Underworld in the Apollo's Fire production of Montverdi's L'Orfeo. (Photograph courtesy of Apollo's Fire, copyright Erica Brenner Productions.)
Orfeo (Karim Sulayman) & Euridice (Erica Schuller) (c) Erica Brenner Productions

Orfeo – Karim Sulayman
La Musica, Euridice – Erica Schuller
Messagiera, Proserpina, Bacchante I – Amanda Powell
Speranza, Pastore III, Bacchante II – Amanda Crider
Pastore I, Spirit I – Owen McIntosh
Pastore II, Spirit II – Jacob Perry
Plutone – Mischa Bouvier
Caronte – Jonathan Woody
Ninfa I – Molly Netter
Ninfa II – Madeline Apple Healey
principal dancer – Carlos Fittante
dancer in Bacchanale – Elena Mullins

Director – Sophie Daneman
Choreographer – Carlos Fittante
Assistant Director, Projection Designer, Diction Coach – Camilla Tassi
Lighting Designer – Cassie Goldbach 

It would be all too easy to dismiss early opera as trial runs at the glory which would come later in the epic works of Wagner or the arch drama of Verdi. The action in Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo is discreet, until the end at least, and most of it is introspective and contemplative. On paper, it doesn’t look impressive, with characters singing at considerable length about every passing emotion, accompanied by the barest bones of basso continuo—the full orchestra only playing in choruses and dances.

Yet there is a reason L’Orfeo has continued to exert a spell not just as the first masterpiece of opera, but as a masterpiece regardless of its place in history. There is something profoundly human about experiencing a 400-year-old opera based on 2,500-year-old dramas inspired by stories that may be 5,000 years old or more. It is the self-awareness of the human species, looking at itself and pondering why as a collective, we so often become Orpheus, succumbing to doubt and looking backward when it is most critical for our eyes to be forward. As such, these stories are deep metaphors, and demand a production that honors the stage drama, such as it is, but more importantly relishes the rhapsodic flights of expression that Monteverdi and librettist Alessandro Striggio generously allowed their characters. Happily, this Apollo’s Fire production savors the work richly.

Around 1600, the Florentine Camerata invented opera with works by Jacopo Peri and Giulio Caccini. The ancient Greek myth of Orpheus trying to retrieve his love Euridice from the Underworld had quickly appealed to these opera creators, and both made versions of the story. But in 1607, an upstart from Mantua named Claudio Monteverdi decided to take a crack at it and in the end, showed up the founders. But one problem exists in modern performances of the work: The surviving libretto shows that there was originally a more elaborate, more violent ending with Orfeo being torn apart by Bacchantes, but the accompanying music did not survive. Apparently at the insistence of the Duke of Mantua, the ending was rewritten to produce a more sedate and truncated close, in which Apollo arrived as a deus ex machina and took Orfeo to heaven. Previous versions have used this authentic if unsatisfying ending.

As part of an earlier production of L’Orfeo, Apollo’s Fire’s unofficial house composer (and brilliant principal cellist) René Schiffer wrote music in the manner of Monteverdi to demonstrate an approximation of how the work originally ended. Though it is my understanding that this ending was not performed in the 1995 staging, it was recorded. This production used this reconstruction, and the shift from Monteverdi to Schiffer is painless. The violence of the drunken Bacchantes attacking Orfeo after he swears off women is quite cathartic, driving home the overall theme of the destructiveness of doubt.

In this semi-staged version, the singers entered and exited through the auditorium aisles, passing through the orchestra to elevated platforms. Strings and woodwinds were deployed in front, with brass and cornettos behind the platforms, making a total of 23 musicians supporting 24 singers and two dancers. The continuo consisted of harpsichord, organ, regale, baroque triple harp, theorbos, and guitar, giving a rich but intimate nuance, which never forced the singers to shout over the musicians.

For a considerable portion of the opera’s two-and-a-half-hour length, Karim Sulayman (Orfeo) was singing, at first rapturous in his wedding with the love of his life, Euridice, then plunging to shocked despair when she suddenly dies and is taken off to the Underworld. The tenor was inexhaustible, singing with as much — if not more — beauty late in the opera as he did early on. Every nook and cranny of Orfeo’s radiance, terror, and depression was explored vocally, with Sulayman’s voice tenderly cradled by the flexible continuo. Intimate and confessional, even in the 500-seat venue of Kulas Hall on the campus of the Cleveland Institute of Music, the performance brought humanity to the venerable myth.

Erica Schuller was radiant as Euridice, also performing the introductory prologue as La Musica. Amanda Powell brought her customary excellence, as did all the soloists. Of special note was the dusky voice of Jonathan Woody as Caronte, the boatman on the River Styx. Also notable was the vibrant dancing of Carlos Fittante, joyous in the wedding celebrations and demonic in the Bacchanale. The orchestra treasured every detail of the scoring without stealing focus from the singers, and Sorrell, magnetic as ever, shaped the assembled artists with a sure but gentle hand.

Sophie Daneman’s stage direction emphasized the personal relationships between the characters, which made their archetypal significance resonant. Movement was lively and involving, with every person on stage engaged in the flow of energy. The hissing approach of the Bacchantes from the back of the theater was a brilliantly effective choice. Neoclassical paintings were projected behind the performers, and evocative lighting closely followed the mood.

In short, another triumph for Apollo’s Fire, and one that will hopefully be followed in the future with more semi-staged productions, which prove the power of story enactment, regardless of elaborate sets, costumes, and props. Humans use science to know what we are, and religion or philosophy to know why we are—but only stories can tell us who we are.

Mark S. Jordan

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