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L’Orfeo L’Orfeo
photo Peter Hislop
The story of this early (1607) opera is based on the mythic journey of Orpheus to the Underworld to retrieve the love he lost to snakebite on their wedding day. Orpheus’ divine music persuades Pluto to allow Eurydice to return with him to the human world, but Orpheus’ weakness has him look back to make sure she is following. He thus breaks the barter, and she disappears forever. The story represents music’s capacity to celebrate and persuade, reflect love and despair, and to struggle with human fallibility—as musicians daily do with their instruments. At the end, Apollo pities Orpheus’ compassion for suffering and raises him to the heavens.

Monteverdi’s opera, with its delicate Baroque vocal ornamentation, coupled with a restless continuo and peppered with harmonic discords, holds together these worlds of contradiction between human effort and transcendence. Although I’m not sure these delicate tensions are successfully realised in this production—a joint effort between national and international designers, specialist period instrumentalists and singers and the Research School of Astronomy & Astrophysics along with School of Music alumni and current students—it certainly has its achievements.

Conductor and Head of the School of Music Peter Tregear wanted the production to be “generation defeating” by virtue of its digital elements. Certainly, Llewellyn Hall packed in the younger crowds. A digital set is also “cost-effective, infinitely recyclable and already receiving interest from other productions overseas.” Indeed, there were gorgeous moments in Andrew Quinn’s design: when the ‘forest’ of columns bows to Orpheus’ arrival (a reference to Shakespeare’s Henry VIII where trees “did bow themselves when he did sing”); in the depiction of the journey across the river Styx, the boat a stunning row of shingles, sea-water shimmering below; and in Hades’ dark-plinthed mausoleum, which called to mind the ‘grief museums’ designed by Daniel Libeskind.

Perhaps if the oscillograph—a projection for the audience tracking the musical score, manipulated by the digital operator—could become more responsive to the actual dynamics of the orchestra, it would be a less plodding device. Even so, I’m not sure that ‘seeing’ the shape-of-music-made-literal really works. It begs the question of what we see in theatre’s ‘empty space.’ It’s the role of director and performers to realise just how active, engaged and relational it already is.

Despite Liz Lea’s sprightly choreography, Orpheus and Eurydice’s wedding is strangely unjoyous, although some of its sombre tone must be attributable to Allessandro Chiodo’s rather stark lighting design. Other key dramatic interactions were lost: for example, Orpheus’s Act III aria to the Ferryman does not seem sung to the space between the two of them—which surely it is: Charon is mesmerised and charmed by Orpheus’ desperate need to have him sleep, as much as by the song’s melodic contours. A key dramatic interaction is lost.

The diction of young graduates, Lachlan McIntyre and Nicholas Beecher, were exceptional, as were the vocal, dramatic and emotional power of Krystle Innes as the messenger of Eurydice’s death and Paul McMahon as Apollo. As for other title roles, the visuals projector was so loud that many times singers could hardly be heard. What a strain for such fine performers.

Chiodo’s lighting design is at its best in the Underworld scenes, where figures seem to float and emerge from the darkness—occasionally reminding me of Brian Thomson’s design for Britten’s Death in Venice for the Australian Opera in the 1990s, but the bright spotlight on Eurydice just when she is lost to Orpheus forevermore is very strange. There is also some awkward plotting at sensitive moments in Act III when tenor Nicholas Mulroy as Orpheus struggled to move cross-stage into patches of light, disrupting the superb poignancy of his aria. In the final scene, Apollo’s digitised ‘exploding star’ seemed gauche against the delicacy of the music.

The Baroque style is generally less rich than the more familiar Bel Canto, partly due to the nature of baroque instruments—thinner gut for strings and harpsichord, smaller reeds and bores for winds. But L’Orfeo’s richness comes from the tensions layered between the continuum motion of orchestral instruments and the plaintive qualities of voice expanded into expressive bouts of melisma. One singer confided that her training in jazz helped her meet the music’s demands. Like the quality of light and shade created by wind through leaves, Monteverdi’s melismas catch more emotion and nuance than any literal interpretation.

The ANU School of Music with the School of Art and the Research School of Astronomy & Astrophysics: L’Orfeo, composer, Claudio Monteverdi, libretto Alessandro Striggio, translation Anne Ridler, musical director Peter Tregear, director Cate Clelland, digital set Andrew Quinn, lighting Allessandro Chiodo, costumes Nadine Geary-James, Deul Seo, choreographer Liz Lea; Llewellyn Hall, ANU School of Music, Canberra, 21-22 Aug

RealTime issue #123 Oct-Nov 2014 pg. 45

© Zsuzsanna Soboslay; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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