STEPHEN STUBBS AND COLIN BALZER BRING MONTEVERDI’S ORFEO TO LIFE
Claudio Monteverdi, ORFEO, Colin Balzer, Danielle Sampson, Mary Feminear, Tess Altiveros, John Taylor Ward, Doug Dodson, Eric Neuville, Ross Hauck, Matthew Treviño (soloists), Dark Horse Consort, Pacific MusicWorks, Stephen Stubbs, conductor, Chan Centre, October 29, 2017.
Monteverdi’s Orfeo is an exemplary product of the humanistic spirit of the Italian Renaissance. The moralistic tone of the libretto, the range of singing styles employed, and the lavishness of the instrumental accompaniment suggest a closer connection with the ‘intermedi’ – the spectacular allegorical entertainments presented at 16th century North Italian courts – than with the public operas purveyed in Venice from 1637 onward. Orfeo is also a better candidate for concert performance – the presentation given on this occasion – than, say, the same composer’s The Return of Ulysses to his Homeland or The Coronation of Poppea, whose wordiness and profusion of characters and incidents make full staging necessary for comprehension of the action. It is quite possible to follow the plot of Orfeo without these dressings, thanks to its straightforward plot, stately dramatic pacing, and simplicity of characterization. Indeed, the concert opera format is arguably an advantage: it allows a greater degree of precision and clarity in performance, and focuses the audience’s attention directly on the vocal and instrumental richness of Monteverdi’s musical language. And that richness was certainly realized in this Early Music Vancouver’s presentation, with Colin Balzer in the title role and featuring the expert direction of Stephen Stubbs, leaving no doubt that Orfeo is as relevant and moving today as it ever has been.
The key to this performance was the ability of the artists to communicate all the contrasts and nuances of the score, while demonstrating a keen understanding of its dramatic arc. In the role of the semi-divine musician Orpheus, Colin Balzer commanded a wide emotional range, from jubilation in Act 1 to numb horror at the end of Act 2, and from a fleeting yet triumphant joy in Act 4 to the blackest despair in Act 5. Monteverdi’s demigod is a man enslaved by his passions, and his failure to exercise prudence – one of the cardinal virtues of Renaissance humanism – is the primary cause of his downfall. Balzer clearly relished the highs and lows of the character: his rendering of the Act 2 canzonetta ‘Vi ricorda o boschi ombrosi’ had an infectious dancelike buoyancy, while the great centerpiece of Act 3 – Orpheus’s plea to Charon, ‘Possente spirto, e formidabil nume’ – was filled with pathos and tragic grandeur, aided by the singer’s tasteful and intelligent ornamentation.
In contrast to Orpheus’s emotive outpourings, the other characters were presented with admirable restraint. In the prologue, the allegorical figure of La musica (Danielle Sampson) addressed the audience with the requisite decorum and formality; her unaffected, unhurried approach to Monteverdi’s lyrical recitative set an appropriately relaxed tone for much of the first act. La messagiera, the bearer of bad news in the second act, saw Mary Feminear deliver one of the most compelling monologues of the entire opera. Following the shock of her jarring opening cry, ‘Ahi, caso acerbo!’ her narrative of Eurydice’s death was a model of dramatic understatement; the quiet intensity of ‘In un fiorito prato’ was more chillingly effective than any amount of histrionics. Special praise is also due to soprano Tess Altiveros in the dual role of Eurydice and Proserpine: with an artful combination of facial expression, gesture, and vocal suavity, she succeeded in infusing both characters with tenderness and charm as well as dignity. Indeed, the soloists were able to inhabit their roles – both vocally and physically – as deeply as in any staged performance.
Other vocal highlights are too numerous to mention: the cast of 9 singers was uniformly strong and functioned impeccably as a team, bringing clarity and balance to Monteverdi’s polyphonic writing. The madrigalian choruses scattered throughout this opera are one of its special glories, and one of the features that distinguish it from later Italian Baroque operas. At the end of Act 4, the chorus of spirits is entrusted with the task of enunciating the moral of the opera, essentially a paean to the virtue of prudence: ‘Worthy of eternal glory / is the one who will have victory over himself.’
This performance benefited from the impeccable sense of style of the 18 instrumentalists representing two outstanding period ensembles: Stephen Stubbs’s own Pacific MusicWorks, and the Dark Horse Consort. Unlike his later operas, a rich diversity of instrumental accompaniment distinguishes Orfeo: Monteverdi uses a variety of strings (bowed and plucked), keyboards, brass, and woodwinds, all for different dramatic purposes. For example, the pastoral scenes tend to be dominated by the timbres of strings, recorders, harp, and harpsichord, while in the infernal scenes the darker sounds of brass and regal (a portable reed organ) predominate. Aside from the rough start to the famous opening trumpet toccata – a puzzling though inconsequential blemish – both groups did full justice to this brilliantly colorful score. The dialogue effects in Orpheus’s ‘Possente spirto,’ in which the singer’s stanzas alternate with passages for two violins, then two cornetti, then harp, were particularly delightful. Throughout the opera, the exceptionally varied continuo group – comprising cello, lirone, harp, two theorbos (large bass lutes), organ, harpsichord, and regal – provided a delicate cushion of constantly-shifting colors.
Congratulations to Stephen Stubbs, Colin Balzer and all the performers for bringing Monteverdi’s 400 year-old masterpiece to life for a contemporary audience!
© Nicolas Krusek 2017