Wednesday 23 July 2014

Munich Opera Festival (3) - L'Orfeo, 20 July 2014

Images: © Wilfried Hösl
Prinzregententheater, Munich

Orfeo – Christian Gerhaher
Euridice – Anna Virovlansky
Messenger, Proserpina – Anna Bonatibus
Caronte – Andrea Mastroni
Hope, La Musica – Angela Brower
Plutone – Andrew Harris
Apollo – Mauro Peter
Shepherd I, Spirit I – Mathias Vidal
Shepherd II, Spirit III, Echo – Jeroen de Vaal
Shepherd III – Gabriel Jublin
Shepherd IV, Spirit II Thomas Faulkner
Nymph – Lucy Knight

David Bösch (director)
Patrick Bannwart (set designs)
Falko Herold (costumes, videos)
Michael Bauer (lighting)
Daniel Menne, Rainer Karlitschek (dramaturgy)

Zürcher Sing-Akademie (chorus master: Tim Brown)
Members of the Bavarian State Orchestra
Ivor Bolton (conductor)


Orfeo (Christian Gerhaher) and Euridice
(Anna Virovlavsky) returning to him
Monteverdi’s Orfeo may take after Jacopo Peri’s Euridice but there is a gulf in terms of quality between the two works. Renaissance opera though Orfeo may be – it really is very different from Ulisse or Poppea – it stands head and shoulders above any preceding essay in the genre, so much as to mark a ‘qualitative leap’ in the history of music. (Monteverdi’s dramatic madrigals are, without question, equally worthy of respect and connected in some respects of style, but they remain something of a different matter.) I knew all that, of course; ‘everyone’ does. However, I think it took this excellent Munich performance not only to make me realise quite how true it is, but truly to feel the greatness of Orfeo as dramma per musica. Perhaps that is not so surprising; it was, after all, my first Orfeo in the theatre – and what a wonderful theatre Munich’s Prinzregententheater is! But it could not have happened without such committed performances, and a largely convincing staging. Even Ivor Bolton, a conductor for whom I have rarely felt any enthusiasm, seemed at his best, certainly far more at ease than in later music, be that later Monteverdi or Handel, let alone Classical or Romantic music.


After two somewhat depressingly routine evenings of Mozart, this new production premiere certainly reinvigorated the Munich Opera Festival. I wondered at first whether David Bösch’s production would prove irritating. However, the flower-power setting of the first act does not get in the way thereafter and a band of musicians is, after all, far from entirely inappropriate to a telling of the Orphic myth. (Who, in any case, has a decided ‘idea’ of archaic Thrace, and on what could it conceivably be founded, even if it were appropriate for a twenty-first-century performance of an early-seventeenth-century opera?) There is an excellent sense of nuptial delight before the trials to come, in which music – on which more below – and production seem very much to be at one. As the plot thickens and darkens, so in any case does the staging. The story is told well; it is perfectly clear who everyone is, and what the characters’ relationship to each other would be. The underworld is properly like the underworld, Charon’s (or Caronte’s) gruesome throng transforming the tone, whilst there is humour without undue exaggeration in the domestic yet divine relationship between Proserpina and Plutone. A post-catastrophic setting for the final act is just the ticket, though some may cavil at Apollo’s decidedly mortal appearance as something akin to a war veteran.


The Messenger (Anna Bonatibus) arrives
If Bolton occasionally let the dance music run away with itself, it was a failing of the right kind, both bowing to and leading a properly infectious account of festivities. Otherwise, I really have nothing to grumble about at all with respect to his direction. Monteverdi’s extraordinary scoring – nowhere is the difference between Orfeo and the ‘Baroque’ operas clearer than here – does a great deal of the work of course, but the delineation of place, character, and mood were instantiated with great dramatic flair. A large continuo group offered a ravishing variety of sound, and, just as important, guided not only the harmony but also everything that unfolded above. What a treat to hear the regal organ of Hades; what a delight to hear the celebratory percussion! The Zürcher Sing-Akademie sometimes sounded oddly churchy: was that a matter of having had an English choral conductor, Tim Brown, train them? The sound was beautiful, but seemed more akin to Choral Evensong than to court at Mantua – or Munich. At other times, however, a more properly madrigalian instinct kicked in, and their musicality was beyond reproach.


Christian Gerhaher made for a magnificent Orfeo. Without in any sense abandoning the beauty of tone and verbal attentiveness that characterise his Lieder performances, he managed yet to seem perfectly at home in this quite different repertoire. Stylistically, he was spot on: neither too heavy with vibrato nor parsimonious in a largely-discredited old ‘Early Musicke’ sense. Perhaps most telling, however, was the realisation that it was in many cases the very virtues of his performances in later repertoire that made this also an outstanding performance; after all, if ever musical performance required equal attention to words and music it is in Monteverdi and Wolf. (And if you ever harboured a desire to see Gerhaher in the somewhat unlikely guise of ageing pop-star, first a little reluctant, then throwing physical caution to the wind, this may well be your only chance!) Anna Bonitatibus made a huge impression as Proserpina, ‘operatic’ in the best sense: opening a new era for the fledgling form. Her Messenger also tugged at the heartstrings, sentiment never tipping over into mere sentimentality. Angela Brower’s Hope (Speranza) and Music were distinguished in a similar fashion. Andrea Mastroni and Andrew Harris  cultivated distinct roles as Caronte and Plutone, whilst Anna Virovlansky’s immensely likeable Euridice had one wishing to hear more. Mauro Peter's Apollo offered on a smaller scale the textual and musical virtues of Gerhaher's Orfeo. All of the smaller roles were well taken. Here was casting in depth and in style: a credit both to the singers listed above and to the Bavarian State Opera.

Monteverdi, then, lived in the present, as he always magnificently does, putting to shame many of his Baroque successors. It would, however, be a shame to forget some of the other versions of this extraordinary work. How about an outing somewhere not only for Orff’s Orfeo – the first Munich performance in 1929, in the Cuvilliés-Theater, was given in one of his versions too – but for Berio’s too…?