A feast of Monteverdi

Opera was born when Monteverdi created its first masterpiece, setting the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Early Music Guild next weekend presents the opera in its full glory, importing a top-rank company from Milan.
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Pluto and Proserpina in Monteverdi's <i>L'Orfeo</i>.

Opera was born when Monteverdi created its first masterpiece, setting the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Early Music Guild next weekend presents the opera in its full glory, importing a top-rank company from Milan.

The Orpheus/Eurydice myth, the archetypal story of boy loses girl and tries to win her back, has repeatedly attracted composers and poets through the centuries. Its range of emotions and dramatic confrontations between life and death by themselves would have sufficed to do so. The sold-out crowds a couple weeks ago for the Metropolitan Opera's cinemacast of Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice (in a new version directed and choreographed by Mark Morris) attest to Orpheus's continuing resonance for audiences.

But add the myth's glorification of the unique power of music to the equation and it becomes especially fitting that Orpheus is the inspiration for another archetype: the first true masterpiece of the new art form that would become known as opera.

Claudio Monteverdi's treatment of the story marks one of the great turning points in the history of Western music. Next weekend (February 6-8) offers the rare chance to see a complete performance of his L'Orfeo — one that fans of music or theater would be foolhardy to pass up. La Venexiana, an acclaimed early-music ensemble from Milan, is bringing its production of Monteverdi's 1607 opera to the Moore Theatre. It's a major coup for the Early Music Guild (EMG), which is co-presenting in a new partnership with Seattle Theatre Group (STG). Although La Venexiana's production has already toured throughout Europe, the only U.S. performances planned to date will be the Seattle run.

"This is especially significant for us," says August Denhard, EMG's executive director. "La Venexiana really seems to own this opera — it's such a part of their heritage." He adds that the Moore Theatre venue especially lends itself to the production and has the advantage of capturing new audiences for both EMG and STG: "Normally our audience has a specific interest in early music, but we're seeing a different group of people as well buying tickets who have a connection with the theater."

L'Orfeo isn't the first opera. Experiments with the idea of "drama through music" had been under way since the last decades of the 16th century in the courts of Florence's nobility. But with this first operatic endeavor of his own — which was labeled a favola or "fable" — Monteverdi and his librettist Allesandro Striggio achieved a breakthrough, as the enthusiastic initial reception confirmed.

As Mark Ringer observes in his elegant survey, Opera's First Master, L'Orfeo "revealed an art form that had come to a state of genuine maturity, a medium capable of addressing the most serious concerns of human life with the emotional depth and intellectual complexity found only in the greatest art."

Don't expect to hear the sorts of arias or duets familiar from mainstream opera. Born just a few years after Shakespeare, Monteverdi approaches the idea of music drama with the preoccupations of Renaissance humanism. One practical result is that the words — and the dramatic truths they express — are privileged in a way that foreshadows the later efforts of operatic "reformers" to rework the balance between music and words. Instead of yielding to empty display, Monteverdi's vocal lines unfold essentially as a form of recitative that subtly and flexibly amplifies the poetic text. The composer was fortunate in having Striggio's first-rate libretto at his disposal. Those who attended L'Orfeo's premiere at the ducal palace in Mantua would have been issued copies of the libretto to follow in performance.

But having poetry as "mistress" of the music — as a famous formulation of the day had it — diminishes none of the power of Monteverdi's score. His genius gives extraordinary depth to the opera's widely contrasting psychological states. With just a few crushing syllables of woe Orfeo sings when he is brought news of Eurydice's sudden death from a snake bite, Monteverdi composes one of the most devastating moments in all opera.

Moreover, the opera's emphasis on Orfeo's role as musician adds an intriguing dimension to the score. Music herself (double cast here as Eurydice) is personified in a prologue, while Orfeo's pleas to the boatman Charon to let him cross through to the Underworld take the form of an extensive solo — the center around which the entire opera pivots and a microcosm of the varieties of musical persuasion.

La Venexiana has earned a reputation for its vivid interpretations of Monteverdi's madrigals and won Gramophone magazine's 2008 Baroque Vocal Award for its recording of L'Orfeo. The company will be touring with a complement of some 30 instrumentalists, who must play with particular sensitivity to the singers' articulation — especially since the notation calls for a subtly improvisatory dimension.

Monteverdi composed L'Orfeo for an ensemble that is chamber-like in dimension but capable of a marvelous variety of combinations and colors in its array of strings, brass, and continuo (the "foundation" line for the harmony over which the voices sing). The orchestra includes the familiar strings as well as bass viols, double harp, recorders, sackbuts (early trombones), trumpets, cornetti (a woodwind/trumpet hybrid), theorbos, harpsichords, small organs, and regal (reed organ).

Claudio Cavina, La Venexiana's music director, does triple duty. He not only conducts and sings one of the shepherds in the production but directs the staging. As a counterpart to the period-instrument musical realization, Cavina reimagines the action in a Graceland-like setting a few months before the death of Elvis. (Tennessee Williams also made the Elvis-Orpheus connection in his play Orpheus Descending.)

Orfeo is "the era's most eligible bachelor" and has "always been at the top of the Hit Parade." The allegorical figure of Hope who allows him to attempt the unthinkable — crossing over into the nether world — is "provocative and naïve'ꀦ very much like Barbarella." For Monteverdi's finale (a philosophical "apotheosis" wherein his father, Apollo, raises Orfeo to the celestial spheres to forget earthly love and contemplate eternity), Cavina conjures a pop duet destined to become "platinum." You can get a sampling of the look, with its fanciful costumes, in this slideshow.

Apparently this is the first time L'Orfeo has been professionally mounted in Seattle. But it's feast instead of famine this season. After La Venexiana's tour, the Moore will present The Return of Ulysses — Monteverdi's opera from 1640 — in March. In collaboration with animation artist William Kentridge, this will mark the debut production, in of Stephen Stubbs's Pacific Operaworks company. Another one not to be missed.


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