Monteverdi: L'Orfeo  
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This is the first recording in the complete Monteverdi cycle with William Christie and Les Arts Florissants, made possible by a three-year collaboration between Dynamic and Teatro Real. Luigi Pizzi's attractive and original staging is enhanced by the rich colour of 17th century costumes. The musicians - and Christie himself - also perform in costume, with the conductor clad in a flowing red cloak and white ruffed collar. The DVD also features interviews with Christie, Pizzi and the Opera's two protagonists.
''Les Arts Florissants and William Christie have an individualised spontaneity yet breathe as one.'' --The Independent
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Stage and pit are not two different elements as the musicians are part of the production, even the conductor and orchestra wear period dress that Pizzi designed for them. The arrangement allows the tone and the quality of the period instruments to be fully expressed and heard. The production is set in the Ducal Palace in Mantua, where the opera was first staged in 1607. After the Prologue a large yard in the palace is full of guests celebrating love, nature, marriage and community. The very elaborate period costumes, the beauty of the palace, and the movement of the singers and dancers create an outstanding staging during the first half. Traditionalists will adore this historical recreation.
The happiness is however short-lived as Euridice is bitten by a snake and dies. The orchestra returns in black clothing and Orfeo appears in bluntly modern garb, and the whole staging turns sparse and symbolic. Grief-stricken, Orfeo descends to the underworld to claim her back from Hades to the living. The spirits of the dead are draped in simple white sheets. The stripped-down staging works well when applied to such abstract subjects and reflects the change in location from earth to the underworld.
The singing is fine and stylistically consistent. Much depends on one singer, Orfeo, and Dietrich Henschel is a convincing Orfeo. In such a work, where improvisation and interpretation plays an important part, he is constantly alert to mood and situation and he brings out the wonderful, beautiful human touch and emotional heart of Monteverdi’s work. The key scene where Orfeo tries to persuade Plutone is a musical highlight. He is well-matched of Maria Grazia Schiavo. She is outstanding as La Musica and a fine Euridice and Proserpina. Sonia Prina as La Messaggera and La Speranza sings with great musicianship and expressiveness. Antonio Abete is a good Plutone too. Luigi de Donato delivers a nuanced and elegant Caronte however a bit on the light side. Monteverdi’s score is brought to life beautifully by William Christie, the orchestra and chorus of Les Arts Florissants and Les Sacqueboutiers de Toulouse.
The image quality is very good when played on a Blu-ray player with upscaling and the sound is clear and resonant. This superb production is one of the most delightful DVD’s I have seen and heard and it is a ‘must have’ for Baroque opera fans.
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And the singers in the roles of the drama? Also superb, and superbly recorded! Maria Grazia Schiavo sings three roles: La Musica in the prologue, Euridice, and Proserpina. If you know the opera well, you'll realize that Euridice is the smallest role of the three. Schiavo brings a different affect to all three personae, being gorgeously warm as La Musica and plaintive as Poserpina. Sonia Prina sings both La Messaggera and La Speranza, with the best of her low register most impressive in the latter role. The four shepherds, roles that w provided the musical highlights in some older Orfeo productions, are slightly overshadowed in this extravaganza of instruments, but they're certainly still delightful. Basso Luigi De Donato is gloriously orotund as Charonte, and Basso Antonio Abete is as grim and stern, both in presence and in voice, as the role of Plutone demands.
But the whole show depends on one singer, Orfeo, who sings nearly half of the whole libretto. Baritone Dietrich Henschel will, I suspect, attract some divided opinions from listeners. Viewers will have no problem admiring his stage presence; he's a manly, resolute Orfeo who fails himself at that one crucial moment. His vocal timbre, however, may not please all; his voice is more dramatic than beautiful, dare I say more German than Italian? The contrast is startling when Apollo descends to the stage in the final scene; Agustin Prunell-Friend has the lyrical 'sprezzatura' tenor timbre that Monteverdi virtually invented in his music. Henschel's artistry is in his technique, his astounding control of breathing and phrasing, of dynamics and variety of timbres, and his confident, consummate ornamentation. The musical highlight of this production is Henschel's singing of Orfeo's plea for the pity of Charonte. Much of what you will hear is 'improvisatory', not improvised on the spot of course but not straightforwardly notated in any source. Henschel draws the most delicacy and elegance his voice can produce from his trills and 'goat trills', his diminutions and arpeggiaturas. In effect, he slows the whole robust, celebratory opera down to a single passionate outcry. To put it in slang, "he goes about as far as he can go."
Now for the staging: Honestly, there are two stagings -- Prologue and Acts 1/2 before intermission and Acts3/4/5 after -- and whether the starkly different concepts of the two make dramatic sense will totally depend on the viewers willingness to accept such a contrast. The first half is costumed and acted as a historical recreation of a performance in the courtyard of a late Renaissance palazzo. It's a rowdy, colorful wedding party, with a permeable line between the singers and their aristocratic patrons, who sit on stage. The orchestra is also costumed -- Bill Christie wears a ruff! -- and in full view, and dramatis personae move freely from stage to pit. Opera-lovers who prefer 'traditional' visual grandeur will adore this first half of the production.
After that intermission, however, the orchestra returns in somber black street clothing, Orfeo appears in the same bluntly modern garb, and the whole staging turns abstract and somewhat modernistic. Charonte's ferry is a boat on a wagon, loaded with 'naked' corpses en route to Hades. Proserpina pleads for Orfeo in her nightgown to a Plutone also in bed clothes, in a bed center-stage. The spirits of the dead are draped in simple white sheets, like kids playing ghosts for Halloween. Whether it's the visual 'let down' of this staging, or the musical let down of the fourth act after the passionate intensity of Orfeo's extended heart-rending in act three, acts four and five seem, to me anyway, oddly sketchy and anti-climactic.
There are no less than five DVDs of Orfeo on the market these days. And who can complain about such an embarrassment of riches! The oldest production, Harnoncourt's, has the virtue of being the pioneering achievement in staging early Baroque opera for a modern audience; it's lavish to the point of distraction, but musically it's painfully crude. The singing is awkward, often poorly tuned, and uninformed in its ornamentation. The orchestra is 'primitive' by current standards. The Barcelona production, conducted by Jordi Savall, has assorted problems that add up to my dissatisfaction. The Rene Jacobs version must have been quite splendid in the theater but it's poorly filmed. The production from Amsterdam -- stage-directed by Pierre Audi and musically directed by Stephen Stubbs -- is so markedly different from this newer production that it might be a separate opera entirely. Where this Madrid production is half spectacle and half symbolist minimalism, the Amsterdam staging is consistently spare, pellucid, spiritualized, timeless and mythic. The musical forces are far smaller -- just the delicate continuo of 'Tragicomedia' and the restrained elegance of "Concerto Palatino" on cornetti and trombones. Frankly, I relished the mythic serenity of the Amsterdam Orfeo, and I miss that conceptual unity in this splendid but inchoate Madrid production. Here's an possible insight: I thought, while watching it, that the Madrid Orfeo had included portions of the opera left out from the Amsterdam production, i.e. that it was longer. In fact, the Madrid DVD runs only 113 minutes, while the Amsterdam DVD is 140 minutes. I'll need to peek at the score, but subjectively I wonder whether the sketchiness of Madrid's Act Four could be a result of cuts.
Bottom Line? You'll be more than glad to have both productions, Madrid/Christie and Amsterdam/Stubbs.