This month we look forward to our concert performances of Monteverdi’s first operatic masterpiece, L’Orfeo, in Vancouver, Portland and Seattle. I have always regarded Orfeo as a secular sister to Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers. Both were created in the same creative period for Monteverdi, and the vocal cast and instrumentarium of the two pieces are almost exactly the same. As Monteverdi’s own sub-title for Orfeo indicates (Favola in musica) this is less a theatrical drama (as are his later operas Poppea and Ulisse) and more of an allegorical “fable”. In other words, the original performance of Orfeo was probably more like what we would today call a concert than what we would regard as an evening at the opera. I would like to add a few thoughts on what has made this such a decisively meaningful piece in my own work.
Near the end of the 20th century I began looking very intently at the music and thought of the late 16th century; in particular at those circles of musicians, poets and intellectuals who laid the groundwork for the creation of opera. Over time the experience began to seem like a very long hall of mirrors – with me and some of my musical colleagues peering intently from our vantage point at this explosively creative time in Western Art music, just as the objects of our gaze had been equally engaged with the discovery and recreation of the artistic glories of Ancient Greece. Their knowledge of the music of ancient Greece was largely limited to descriptions of its wondrous effects – moving listeners to tears or laughter, even inspiring them to storm off into battle or fall in love. They also knew the names of some of the principal instruments of accompaniment – the lyra and the kithara. They aspired to create those wonderful emotional effects for their own listeners and named their instruments – lirone, chitarrone and others – after their ancient models. They knew almost nothing of the musical means by which the wonderful effects were achieved beyond the basic principle that words and melody together delivered the artistic effect, uncluttered from the “modern” encumbrance of complex counterpoint. They knew what it must have been “like”, but they had to create this “ancient” music from whole cloth.
The pre-eminent musician and musical dramatist of the late 16th/early 17th centuries was Claudio Monteverdi, and his twin achievements in 1607 and 1608 of Arianna and Orfeo were the iconic artefacts of the Italian revival of ancient Greek musical drama which can be said to begin both the genre of opera and the modern era of music at once. Of Arianna, only the libretto and the vastly influential Lamento d’Arianna remain. Orfeo, by contrast was one of the best documented musical events of the 17th century including a remarkable commemorative printed score, which documents not only the music that was played and sung, but uniquely for its time and place, the combinations of accompaniment instruments: the harpsichords, chitarroni, harp, organ, regal, violas da gamba and cello which made up the basso continuo. Intense study of this score and those recipes unlocked for me many of the mysteries of how to perform the dramatic music of the 17th century. Now, having performed Orfeo in many ways with many different artistic teams over the years, it feels like a special privilege and luxury to do it once again with such a talented crew of trusted colleagues and in my own beloved Northwest. I’m especially delighted to have long-time friend and colleague Colin Balzer in the role of Orfeo. Colin’s baritonal tenor voice seems to be exactly what Monteverdi had in mind for the role of Orfeo, and Colin’s long experience with the composer and the piece (doing Orfeo with me in 2000 in Vancouver B.C. before beginning his international career). It is also exciting to see the wonderful talent pool of great young singers that have been attracted to live in the Northwest over the past decade (Mary Feminear and Danielle Sampson, amongst them) who will play a decisive role in this production.