Apollo's Fire Does L'Orfeo
A myth comes to life
by arwulf arwulf
From the April, 2018 issue
Orpheus, the ancient Greeks tell us, was the son of Calliope, muse of epic poetry. Orpheus embodied the power of music, which acted as a force of nature whenever he sang and played his lyre. Animals of every description would gather to listen, trees pulled up their roots to follow him, and even the rocks were said to have expressed their empathies by echoing his voice back to him. The legend of Orpheus's bereavement and his visit to the underworld in a bold attempt to bring his beloved Eurydice back from the realm of the dead is a sobering reflection on impermanence.
Neatly positioned on the cusp of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, Claudio Monteverdi's opera L'Orfeo manifests all the magic, mystery, and emotional weight of the myth, wrapped in music of exquisite beauty and depth. While not the first European opera, it is generally acknowledged as the earliest that is still regularly performed. On April 15, Jeannette Sorrell and the Cleveland-based Baroque orchestra Apollo's Fire will present a semi-staged performance of L'Orfeo at Hill Auditorium.
Cast as Orfeo, Karim Sulayman is uncannily well-suited to the role. His clear, delicate, high-ranging voice is classed as haute-contre, a high tenor associated with Baroque opera. Sorrell speaks glowingly of his "commanding stage presence." The entire production has been carefully patterned after the opera's premiere in 1607 at the Ducal Palace in Mantua. Digital projection will conjure visions of the courtly interior, decorated with colorful canvases and frescoes.
Unlike public performance spaces where musical entertainments were commonly presented, the Ducal Palace was not equipped with a theatrical mechanism to facilitate Apollo's descent on an artificial cloud and the hoisting aloft of Orpheus in a grand apotheosis. Faced with this practical limitation, Monteverdi and librettist Alessandro Striggio devised an alternate ending for the performance. Because only the text has survived, the ensemble's principal cellist Rene Schiffer has reconstructed the score.
The alternate finale of L'Orfeo is much grittier than the conventional happy ending that was customary in early seventeenth-century theatrical entertainment. Deep in the throes of an impassioned soliloquy, Orfeo is interrupted by the arrival of a wild band of maenads, or female Dionysian revelers, who in the classical myth dismembered the poet and flung his head into a river where it continued to sing while floating downstream. Precisely how the Apollo's Fire company will handle this bracing scenario remains to be seen. Perhaps with Orfeo out of the picture, the maenads will conclude the evening with an ecstatically choreographed bacchanalia.
[Originally published in April, 2018.]
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