The voices of a long-forgotten world have spoken. This was my first – musical – impression of L’Orfeo directed by Iván Fischer. But what exactly did these two performances mean to me? Pleasant surprise, discovery and a completely new musical context. Critical review by Botond Békési, Szintézis blog.
I was afraid of L’Orfeo. What frightened me was not the story or the ending composed by Fischer following the original libretto. It was merely the composer, Monteverdi, and the date of the opera’s premiere, 1607. Still, I was also curious as, with the exception of Figaro, I have seen all of Fischer’s opera directions in Hungary, so it was clear that I would want to see it. One thing I didn’t anticipate was going to both nights.
However, before I dive into my review, let me clear things up and explain why I had my reservations about the piece. Although I love both early music and Baroque and will not be deterred by an aria di bravura composed for (counter)tenor or some obscurely strange instruments, and even the constant thumping of the basso continuo does not drive me mad, the music of L’Orfeo is simply different. The musical tradition of the century before it, including polyphonic structures, motet-like singing and the characteristics of church music, is still prevalent in this work. I didn’t know what to make of it, and the recordings were no help, they just made even more reluctant.
My feelings of aversion disappeared on the day of the premiere, during the first bars of the toccata. This otherwise decidedly heavy and mature music sounded simply ethereal in Fischer’s interpretation. There were no traces of the solemn march-like character, rather, the music seemed happy and melodious as it arrived from the drums, tambourines and recorders to the strings, lutes and sackbuts. Similarly, listening to the music introducing the prologue did not weigh me down. It followed from the “overture” in an almost organic way.
And then, as the performance was progressing, I gradually started to feel the beauty of this more than historic music.
It was interesting to realize how enthralling this much more relaxed and natural flow of the whole piece was, which rescued us from the daily rush often perceived even in concert halls.
Let’s stay for a while with the curiosities for the ear since for me, as a “new ear”, the piece was full of such things. L’Orfeo is classified as an opera, which is a modern category. Although it is considered the first opera ever written, which we should bear in mind, I would not use this word when reviewing this performance. For me, “opera” does not describe at all what I have seen. So, by its original description, it is a favola in musica or a fable in music. And why do I emphasize this difference? Because this small difference determines the character of the singing roles. Don’t expect huge arias, monumental scenes, neatly separated recitatives or choruses. The whole piece is as if the most splendid vocal tradition of the Renaissance were combined with the subtle lyricism and grace of opera. And this means telling a story through singing.
On that note, I must mention that Fischer managed to get a dream team this year, as well: Emőke Baráth (Euridice, La Musica), Núria Rial (Ninfa, Proserpina, Baccante) or Valerio Contaldo (Orfeo).
In addition to the artists mentioned above, it seems obvious if you have read the program booklet and compared it to what you saw on stage that – while in Falstaff, the last production directed by Fisher, the focus was on fluency in Italian – this time, knowledge of the Baroque repertoire played an important role when selecting the singers.
The direction, the stage setting and the choreographies were all up to the usual high standards, without, however, any extraordinary solutions. The setting could not be more “classical”. A green meadow with lush grass and slopes mixed with the centuries-old on-stage scenery of Teatro Olimpico of Vicenza (a nice reference to where this production was intended for) projected in the backdrop. I would only describe the underworld scenes as unusual, although exquisitely beautiful and a perfect atmosphere better depict the reflection of the River Styx, where Orfeo caught a glimpse of Euridice on his way back. The choreographies and the composed scenes also blended in with the pure and simple concept. The subtle gestures taught by choreographer Sigrid T’Hooft made the presence of the singers spectacular but not ostentatious.
After all that, the big question of the whole performance is this: What was Fischer’s ending like? Knowing his previous work as a composer, e.g. his opera, The Red Heifer, Fischer’s music is lively, accessible, classical in its structure but still modern and creative. However, we shouldn’t expect a huge difference at the ending of L’Orfeo. The music of the ending blends in completely with the original musical material, and it is almost unrecognizable where Fischer’s music starts. Perhaps there is only one moment when it is conspicuous that the ending was not written 400 years ago: when the sackbuts play for a few bars with a rather romantic tone. However, we could also witness a little inventiveness, although in just a small detail: the opera is closed by the theme of the toccata as it is played for the last time by one of the recorders.
Both the premiere and the second performance were successful, with the audience obviously fond of this production, and I was also amazed to see how relaxed everybody seemed when leaving the concert hall. I would like to praise particularly the light and airy musical interpretation and the smooth direction. These were absolutely audience-friendly performances. Free of any overcomplicated ideas or superfluous flamboyancy. Those two nights were about the perfect unity of the stage and the music.
And we might as well have been in 1607 when the toccata started again in the middle of the audience’s ovation...