Monteverdi – L’Orfeo

Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, Friday May 12, 2006

Conductor: Emmanuelle Haïm. Production: Giorgio Barberio Corsetti. La Musica/Euridice: Kerstin Avemo. Orfeo: Michael Slattery. Ninfa: Kimy McLaren. Pastori: Pascal Bertin, Ed Lyon, Finnur Bjarnason, Jonathan Brown. Messaggiera: Renata Pokupic. La Speranza: Marina De Liso. Caronte: Andrea Silvestrelli. Proserpina: Aurélia Legay. Plutone: Paul Gay. Apollo: Finnu Bjarnason. Eco: Simon Wall. Spiriti: Amine Hadef, Simon Wall, Kevin Kyle, John Mackenzie, Jonathan Brown. Le Concert d’Astrée orchestra and vocal ensemble. Les Sacqueboutiers.

It’s odd that Emmanuelle Haïm should be so deficient in Händel yet so good in Monteverdi. I wonder if it depends on her employing what in France are called “intermittents” – the showbiz equivalent of casual labour – or if it is simply that her forces and the way they play are suitable for Monteverdi but wrong for Händel.

Whatever controversy some of her decisions spark off among baroque fundamentalists (over continuo, effects and ornamentation) this Orfeo was, to my amateur ear, the best I’ve ever heard. Admittedly, opportunities to hear this very great piece are ridiculously rare; and the last time, some years back, the performance (directed, I think, by a choreographer: always dodgy in my experience) was in all respects a washout.

The music started in the foyer, with the excellent and surprisingly in-tune sacqueboutiers playing us the toccata as if this were Bayreuth and we were about to undergo an episode of the Ring. In the pit, to my uncultured ear, the Concert d’Astrée kept up a dense (too dense for the fundamentalists) tapestry of rich and often lively sound. On stage, the principals were young and fresh and on the whole gave us a stylish evening of singing, remarkably well-projected for baroqueux, as they’re called here. (Two of the three of us, without consulting each other, suspected there was some subtle amplification at work, but we must have suspicious minds: a friend contacted later thought it unlikely the Châtelet is equipped for that.)

I liked the fact that individual voices remained audible in the elegant chorus, and the soloists formed an even ensemble. Michael Slattery is a handsome, youthful, convincing Orfeo; though in the big set-piece arias, he tends to “pant” to express emotion, where I’d have preferred a more evenly sustained vocal line, like that of the very elegant tenor Finnur Bjarnason or the other very elegant pastori. Paul Gay was a little underpowered as Plutone (proving, perhaps, that there were no mikes after all), Andrea Silvestrelli quite the opposite as Caronte. Among the women, pretty, boyish Kerstin Avemo was the most “in-your-face authentic,” singing sweetly when she used vibrato, but switching it off rather aggressively, sounding flat in both senses of the term.

She opened the proceedings, as La Musica, in full renaissance red velvet, appearing in a little box in the centre of an otherwise white, flat screen on which boughs of blossom were projected. So it looked like it was to be a period production. Hence the chuckles when the curtain rose to reveal a dozen or so Vespas lined up on stage and a projected sky: the Italian director, it seems, draws a parallel between the Orpheus legend and the life and death of Pasolini, and the setting was to be 70s Italy, with only La Musica and La Speranza in velvet and silk brocades. The chorus gambolled on – some of them balding slightly or slightly pudgy in the tight 70s gear and looking less rather youthful than the gambolling implied; an outing of the local Christian union, or Mormons at play, came to mind – sat astride the scooters, and projected scenery moved by at the rear till they arrived at their picnic place and plastic sheep slid in among them.

From then on, the production was full of ideas but somehow not quite able to bring them off convincingly: more a series of lightweight anecdotes than telling one coherent narrative. There were moments of great impact: for example, as Orfeo sang his marvellous “Possente spirto…” first clothes rained down softly from above, then naked bodies fell, in black & white projection, into Hades. There were other, more corny ones, e.g. having Plutone and his followers watching Euridice on TV.

Sometimes the projections were too neo-sub-Bill Viola, tree-hugging new-age for me, and some stage business raised laughs, as when Orfeo, seeing Caronte was asleep, stepped into the boat and lowered an outboard motor into the water to sail off through the fallen clothes… The presence of three muscular young acrobats, as satyrs observing Orfeo’s followers with curiosity or as spirits in the service of Plutone, might be explained by the Pasolini concept; the presence of half-dressed men seen in mirrors making love on red sofas in the final scene must have been – it was otherwise incomprehensible.

Still, the production did no real harm, and the music-making was good enough to remind us that in opera, as in any art, there’s no progress: Monteverdi’s early masterpiece, while very nearly inventing opera, has never actually been bettered.

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