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Sunday, June 28, 2015

Go to Hell

La favola d’Orfeo
Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, Great Barrington, Mass., June 21

THE GREATEST TRIBUTE to the power of Claudio Monteverdi’s music (and the damn fine story it set) occurred during the second half of Orfeo, as the title character made his way out of the underworld, his late wife behind him, she silently imploring him not to turn and look, he doubting the authenticity of the interdiction. The inevitable moment arrived. He turned. And a good portion of the audience gasped in dismay.

Mireille Asselin
Monteverdi’s Orfeo premiered in 1607 in what’s believed to be a fairly small room; compared to that, the Mahaiwe Theater would seem cavernous, but the 690-seat house proved to be a perfect size for this piece. The orchestra was seated onstage, with a brass ensemble upstage on risers for the opening fanfare.

These were true-to-the-period instruments, which typically don’t produce as large a sound as do modern ones, and there were fewer than 20 players, but the blend and the volume were perfect in the hall.

Music directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs each wielded a long-necked chitarrone; with harpist Maxine Eilander, they created a shimmering texture of strummed strings behind the vocals, enhanced when Avi Stein turned from organ to harpsichord.

The setting was simple: a blue cyc lightened into a summer sky for the first half of the piece. The ensemble of nine singers and a dancer entered as strolling players, drawing masks and costume pieces from a cart before launching into the action.

We witnessed the deft transformation of soprano Mireille Asselin (pictured) from the mysterious figure of Music, reminding us of her power to move us, into the beautiful Euridice, the too-good-to-be-true bride of Orfeo (the excellent Aaron Sheehan).

This part is a pastoral, its text filled with effective images of nature. The action, such as it is, moves fairly quickly, the better to highlight the arias Orfeo sings. “Via ricorda—do you remember, o shady groves,” is one of the more stirring, emphasized by the instrumentalists rising to their feet.

But Euridice is doomed, felled (aren’t they all?) by a serpent. “Who will console us?” sing a pair of shepherds, and the subsequent lament is all the more affecting by the contrast of performing it a cappella.

A crimson curtain has been lowered for the second part. It turns black as Orfeo makes his way into the underworld. Countertenor Nathan Medley, as Speranza (Hope), notes the stern (and amusingly ironic) warning: Abandon hope, you who enter.

“You must have a brave heart and a fair song,” he tells Orfeo, and the subsequent song is far more than fair: “Possente Spirto e formidabil Nume” (“Mighty spirit and powerful god”) is Orfeo’s entreaty to the ferryman, and it is punctuated by different instrumental arrays, changing color and intensity even as it lulls Caronte to sleep. As a dramatic moment, it gained unexpected momentum, offering an effective emotional transition as we crossed the water into the abyss.

Although the women in a piece like this don’t get a lot of face time, they tend to talk sense. It’s Proserpina, goddess of Hades, who is persuaded to allow Euridice to escape, giving soprano Teresa Wakin a chance to shine.

Hooded and robed and sounding deeply ominous, baritone Marco Bussi was particularly effective as her husband Plutone, who issues the directive that Orfeo keep his eyes ahead as Euridice follows.

Orfeo is half-human, but that’s the half that undoes him. “What Plutone forbids, love commands,” he decides, and his sabotages his mission. His return to the fields of Thrace is muted by that persistent curtain, but it rises to reveal a cyc of bright orange as sun-god Apollo (tenor Jason McStoots) elegantly reminds him that “nothing that delights down here will last.”

And so it was that our couple of hours in this far-off era was over, its timeless message re-met, its gracious, gorgeous performance a memory I’ll invite to persist.

Metroland Magazine, 25 June 2015

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