A  BUMMER  OF  A  TRIP: Orfeo in the Underworld

A  BUMMER  OF  A  TRIP: Orfeo in the Underworld

Barry Cooney 

Santa Fe Opera Review:
By Claudio Monteverdi

The works of Claudio Monteverdi (1567 – 1643) are regarded as a foundational bridge between the Renaissance and Baroque styles of music. His piece “Orfeo” (1607), while not the first  “opera” ever written (See Jacopo Peri, 1561 -1633) is an example of a well formed fusion of music and drama. It remains one of the few operas of that period still widely performed. (The SFO also staged his “L’incoronazione di Poppea” in 1986 )

The late Renaissance is a pivotal time in Western music, with the development of “polyphony,” a style of musical expression that simultaneously combines individual melodies in harmony with one another.  Polyphony was still floating in unknown waters when Monteverdi used it to craft music of profound lyric beauty.  However, when we look at the music written 400 years ago we are confronted by many uncertainties:  what instruments were employed?;  what are the music’s rhythmic configurations?; what kind of voices (eg. tenor, bass, mezzo-soprano, et. al.) were originally used to sing various roles?, amongst others.

These uncertainties have led to many reconstructed versions of Orfeo.  The most recent is that of composer Nico Muhy, whose commissioned orchestration is used in this season’s Santa Fe Opera production. He did a marvelous job, at once keeping the Monteverdi score authentic to its time, and expanding the musical line to give the listener the advantage of hearing a combination of instrumental sounds that eluded audiences of the early 17th Century.   (Although I personally would have greatly enjoyed digesting the sounds of Renaissance instruments like the sackbut, crumhorn, rebec or slide trumpet.)

The story of this opera is drawn from Classical mythology.  Ofeo is a demi-god, whose music is unsurpassed in enchanting all those who hear it.  One day, Orpheus receives word that his wife Euridice is dead, bitten by a serpent, and now resides in Hades, the Underworld. Upon hearing the news, Orpheus manages to persuade Plutone, god of the Underworld to restore her life and return her to her earthly abode. However there is one caveat: if Orpheus looks back while escorting Euridice out of the Underworld, she will die a second death and remain in Hades for all eternity. However, fearing deception, he glances back and turns a happy ending into a heartbreaking tragedy.

The staging of this production is creative and eye-catching. A large dome structure is where most of the action takes place.  (Before the lights go down the structure appears to resemble an enormous hamburger bun.) However, the bun is transformed in Act III when the dome rises to reveal the darkness of Hades, punctuated by obscure beams of light.

I sometimes felt the staging overpowered the music; (I suggest audience members be mindful of their listening skills and not become distracted by the “eye-candy” produced by the stage settings and colorful costuming.)

In the performance I attended, (a full dress rehearsal), tenor Rolando Villazon sung the lead role. It seemed to take him a while to get into full voice and flow with the movement of the character on the awkward surface of the dome. But eventually he cast off his “Broadway persona” and clumsy footing to become an Orfeo of note.

The other leads were in good voice, with soprano Lauren Snouffer as the Spirit of Music, and baritone Blake Denson, as the god Plutone, deserving particular attention for the former’s soft melodic tones and the latter’s full throated resonance.  The chorus, which plays a significant part in augmenting the opera’s enchanting harmonics was uniformly captivating. Music Director and Conductor Harry Bicket was likewise, a master in allowing the orchestra to give full expression to the subtle instrumental and vocal nuances that characterize Nico Muhy’s new scoring.

This production of Orfeo is the last of five operas presented in the SFO’s 2023 season.  However, there’s still time to get seats for all the productions through the end of August. Listening to world-class opera in a cool desert setting is a fine way to bring closure to a sometimes over heated summer.

 (NOTE: The Apprentice Singers are in Concert August 13th and 20th).

Santa Fe Opera:
Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi
Performances: August 11th, 16th and 24th (8:00 pm)
Tickets: $50-$350
Box Office: (505) 986-5900


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