February 6, 2020
University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music Cincinnati, Ohio.
Conductor – Brett Scott, conductor
Director – Amy Johnson
Scenic designer – Ann Nowak
Costume designer – Henry Luna
Lighting designer – Andrew Stewart
Orpheus – Logan Wagner
Eurydice – Melodie Spencer
Music – Claudia Neff
Hope – Clara Reeves
Messenger – Storm Hargrave
Charon – Joshua Klein
Proserpine – Breanna Flores
Pluto – Sam Dhobhany
Nymph – Alea Vernon
Echo – Reed Demangone
Apollo – Matthew Goodheart
Chorus of Shepherds and Spirits – Above principals and, from the second cast: Grant Peck, Henry Lunn, Andrew Cunningham, Kate Riederer, Victoria Popritkin, Sarah Scofield
L’Orfeo is one of a handful of stage works by Claudio Monteverdi to have survived. Although not by any means the first opera, L’Orfeo is nonetheless the oldest opera still part of the repertory, and more than the stage works by Peri, Bardi, and Caccini, a chamber opera in the true sense of the term, having received its premiere in February of 1607, not in a theatre, but in an intimate setting in one of the private rooms of the Ducal Palace of Mantua.
Anchored in the Classic structure of Greek Tragedy, Monteverdi’s librettist provides a dramatic structure wherein the common man – embodied here by nymphs and shepherds in the first act and mortal spirits in the second act – interacts, questions, comments, even at times opposes the protagonist, Orpheus. Here we have for the first time in history action paired to music and a text that drives forward the story of a poet’s journey to hell and back.
That story, as portrayed in the prototypically classical libretto by Alessandro Striggio is that of the young lute-playing musician and poet Orpheus (Logan Wagner), who shortly after his nuptials to his beloved Eurydice (Melodie Spencer), must deal with her sudden death, victim of a snake bite. Distraught, Orpheus implores to the Fates, all to no avail, to bring back his beloved from the Underworld. When his words fall on deaf ears he then decides, guided by Hope (Clara Reeves) to go to the very gates of Hades where he encounters Charon (Joshua Klein), the boatmen who transports all dead souls across Styx, the river of Oblivion.
The hardnosed boatman refuses to give the young mortal passage, but Orpheus sings a lullaby that puts the old man to sleep. Seizing the opportunity, Orpheus commands Charon’s boat, crosses the river, and enters the deepest realm of the underworld, where he comes before Pluto (Sam Dhobhany) and Proserpine (Breanna Flores), monarchs of Hades. There Orpheus sings for them, and moved by his singing the infernal queen entreats her husband to let the young man take his bride back to the world of the living.
Pluto acquiesces with one condition: the lovers must not look at each other until they reach the world above.
As they walk out of Hades, Orpheus cannot resist and steals a glance into Euridice’s eyes, and when he does, the vow made to Pluto is broken and Euridice vanishes. Apollo descends from the heavens and invites the heartbroken Orpheus to ascend up into the higher realms, where he will be reunited with his beloved and rewarded for his suffering.
Whatever moral one may wish to draw from this tale, this story about love beyond death must be allowed to speak for itself. Many a stage director of this musical fable has not been able to resist the temptation to improve upon the basically naïve quality of the text and story, rather than trusting its pastoral simplicity.
Director Amy Johnson has opted to trust the spirit and letter of Monteverdi’s and Striggio’s original by avoiding any revisionist tricks, felicitously moving the action into the Age of Aquarius sixties and encouraging the young singing actors to behave and move naturally, greatly helped by the contemporary look of the costuming. Nor has she missed the opportunities for humor afforded by the story itself, thus avoiding any reverential attitudes.
The choice of this work is perfect for this cast of undergraduates in their late teens and very early twenties. It would be unfair to single out any one of the sixteen-plus participants, since it is as an ensemble that they made an impression on the capacity audience, doing most of the dramatic and vocal heavy lifting throughout the evening with artistic cohesiveness and a terrific sound.
Brett Scott continues to prove every time he conducts that he is as resourceful an opera conductor as the best. He led the small instrumental ensemble that comprised a good compliment of early instruments with sensitive pliancy, and stylishly accompanied the recitatives, arioso solos, and choral passages in period-perfect fashion, guiding his players in the execution of the embellishments needed to bring the four centuries old L’Orfeo to vivid life.
Kenneth Shaw’s brainchild Opera D’Arte, now in its sixth year continues its journey through the operatic repertory of several centuries. This foray into the 17th century is yet one more step in the right direction: selecting works suitable to young voices and presenting them in professional level productions such as this gem of a show.
Rafael de Acha