MONTEVERDI: L’Orfeo (complete opera), Blu-ray (2011)
Orchestra: Orchestra of Teatro alla Scala & Concerto Italiano (Basso continuo)/Rinaldo Alessandrini /Robert Wilson, dir.
Cast: Orfeo: Georg Nigl/ Euridice: Roberta Invernizzi/Messaggera: Sara Mingardo/Speranza: Sara Mingardo/Caronte: Luigi De Donato/ Proserpina: Raffaella Milanesi/ Plutone: Giovanni Battista Parodi/Eco: Roberta Invernezzi/ Apollo: Furio Zanasi/Solo Dancer: Nicola Strada
Studio: Opus Arte OA BD7080D [Distr. by Naxos]
Video: 16:9 Color 1080i HD
Audio: Italian DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
Extras: Illustrated synopsis/cast gallery
Length: 116 minutes
Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo is frequently considered the very first grand opera in that it does involve a fully-acted story, some dramatic interchange between characters and is through composed without a spoken narrative. Based on the ancient Greek legend, by Ovid, and brought to libretto by Alessandro Striggio, it tells the story of Orpheus’ descent to the underworld, Hades, and his futile attempt to bring his dead bride Eurydice back to the living world. Written in 1607 for a court performance in Mantua, Italy, L’Orfeo is one of the earliest music dramas still regularly performed. After its premiere the work was staged again in Mantua and other Italian theaters for the next several years. Its score was published by Monteverdi in 1609 and again in 1615. After the composer’s death the opera remained unperformed for a long while.
In the early to late 1950s, several European companies resurrected performances of L’Orfeo and other early operas, frequently with some authentic instrumentation or period instruments. In fact, in the published score Monteverdi lists around 40 instruments to be used, with certain groups of instruments used to depict particular scenes and characters. For example, strings, harpsichords and recorders represent the pastoral fields of Thrace with their nymphs and shepherds, and heavy brass tend to illustrate the underworld and its inhabitants.
There are many reasons to see and to own this terrific new Blu-ray performance with the Tetro alla Scala from a 2009 performance. For early music enthusiasts and especially purists the performance is excellent. The Teatro orchestra in this case, with the Concerto Italiano under Rinaldo Alessandrini uses both authentic instruments as well as the separated continuo part. It both looks very interesting, thanks to some nice close up shots, as well as sounding great. The vocal performances are terrific as well! Georg Nigl as Orfeo brings a strong but appropriately non-inflected clarity to his voice and some true strength tinged with hopelessness to his role. He is certainly bolstered by similar strong performances including Sara Mingardo in the dual role of the messenger and Speranze and particularly Giovanni Battista Parodi in the imposing, somewhat scary role of Pluto, guardian of Hades. The orchestra’s playing is crisp and alternately buoyant and weighty at requisite times. This is a tight and attractive performance all the way around.
However, the other reason to own this is the absolute visual delights to be found in Robert Wilson’s staging. The actors are all wearing facial makeup that is intended to look quite like ancient Greek masques; right down to articulated cheek bones and high eyebrows. The effect is almost that of watching puppets as they move smoothly and look stunning, frequently monochromatic, but nearly artificial. The stage design itself, though, is “minimalist stunning”. Based on a painting by Titian, “Venus and Cupid with an Organist” (1548), the set design is entirely representative of the scene in the Titian (a contemporary of Monteverdi’s) painting viewed from the organist’s window, right down to the stag and cypress trees in forced perspective. The lighting in this production compliments the choice of colors and – along with the strange gravity-defiant lyre – makes for a visually attractive largely monochromatic pleasure that strong sunlight and sudden dark intrude on at key moments. The dancer, a half-man, half-bird is an odd but physically catching specimen that also intrudes in an almost Dada-like way.
I have been a fan of Robert Wilson’s work since Einstein on the Beach. Everything about this production and this well-engineered Blu-ray disc is worth having. I recommend that you also find the video performance of Wilson’s production of C.W. Gluck’s Alceste (EMI/Image) with its floating geometrics and – to complete the “six degrees of separation” – go hear the Philip Glass (after Cocteau) Orphee (Orange Mountain) for a completely different take on the Ovid oral legend. Even if your only interest in this is because you like Monteverdi, as I do, you will not be disappointed.
— Daniel Coombs