‘Orfeo’ review: a contract for excellence

Stephen Stubbs leads Pacific MusicWorks's masterful authentic concert reading of Monteverdi's pioneering opera based on the Orpheus myth

by BRUCE BROWNE and DARYL BROWNE

Pacts with the Devil rarely work out. The decks are usually stacked in the devil’s favor. Joe Boyd (Damn Yankees) yearns for the return of his youth. Jabez Stone (The Devil and Daniel Webster) just wants some good luck for a change. Keanu Reeves’s character in Devil’s Advocate wants professional success. Those Faustian characters, and the needy protagonist Faust himself, want more than the earthly pleasures currently offer.

Then there is Orfeo, title character of Claudio Monteverdi’s opera performed last weekend by Pacific MusicWorks. In this concert version presented by Portland Baroque Orchestra at Portland’s Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, the performing forces were a composite of early music experts: cornetto, trombones and recorders of Dark Horse Consort, eight soloists/choristers, and the Pacific MusicWorks Orchestra, led by Grammy Award winning Seattle-based music theorbo artist Stephen Stubbs.

Stephen Stubbs led Portland Baroque Orchestra’s performance of Monteverdi’s ‘Orfeo’ at Portland’s Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. Photo:

In Greek mythology, Orpheus (Orfeo in Italian) is a dude to rally round. He embraces only the “good,” uses music to charm the flora and fauna and to even soften the most hardened heart. There is something about Orfeo that makes him more palatable than Faust, more endearing. In this segment of the Orphic saga, he is at one moment ecstatic over his coming wedding to Eurydice, then plunged headlong into despair over her sudden death by serpent. In quintessential Orphic style – heroic, confident – he sets out to find and work his charms on Plutone (Pluto), the God of, you know, down there. He will bring Eurydice back to life. But alas, because of his passion, his pact does not end as well as he had hoped. Yet somehow we applaud his effort.

All of the above enticed the 40-something Claudio Monteverdi to set Orfeo to music. Further inspired by the libretto of Alessandro Striggio the Younger, his colleague at the court of Mantua, Monteverdi wrote emotional, picturesque, complex and riveting music which was, like caramel sauce on a latte, cast and staged – to a degree anyway.

This is an important operatic work. First opera? Fact check: FALSE. No, not even the first Orphic opera. Florentine composer Jacopo Peri preceded it with his own L’Euridice. But it was a ground breaking and landmark work. It was written on his way toward Monteverdi’s professional apex, the position of Maestro di Capella, at San Marco in Venice.

Monteverdi was interested in pursuing the innovative idea of drama being sung on stage. It is important to understand this as a gradual evolution of the genre when we see Orfeo. Those anticipating a fully costumed, staged with scenery and developed musical drama might be underwhelmed by Orfeo. But on Friday evening, there were so many things about which to be overwhelmed.

In lieu of speaking directly with Monteverdi – now that would be a pact worth consideration – I consulted noted Monteverdi historian Joan Catoni Conlon, known also to Northwest concert goers as the former director of Seattle’s Northwest Chamber Chorus. “Regarding staging, I believe there is evidence that some pretty elaborate props might have been used, such as a cloud for Apollo to descend on in the last act.  But I honestly cannot say that they used anything more than the subtle staging.”

Dr. Conlon did refer, however, to the riches of the Duke of Mantua, staunch patron of the arts, who made sure that the premier was most extravagant and lavish. Monteverdi and his contemporaries did not always enjoy this condition, with later works being produced publicly, relying on door receipts. Ah. The more things change the more they stay the same.

The secret to the dramatic impact of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, therefore, lies in what the composer provided from within the music itself, in concert with the libretto, and in a performance which is as historically honest and as artistically impeccable as possible.

And honesty and impeccability describe the work of the gaggle of great singers, chief among them the bass, Matthew Trevino, Caronte (Kharon in Greek), ferryman across River Styx, laying down the law to Orfeo and soprano, Mary Feminear, as the Messenger (who tells Orfeo that Euridice has perished) magnificent and artful in her full-voiced delivery.

Orfeo himself, performed by Colin Balzer, provided great dramatic interest. He and Tess Altiveros (Euridice) were the only singers who were off book for the whole show, which enabled more physical presence and variety of facial expression. Altiveros, as both Euridice and Proserpina, sang beautifully, and became stronger and fuller as the show wore on.

A dramatic jolt and my only argument with the composer/playwright occurs when the character Euridice (Ms. Altiveros), having died of snakebite in Act II, reappears as Proserpina in Act IV and sings about Euridice. Perhaps in 1607, this would have been aided with a simple costume change.

Other “doubles” such as Danielle Sampson as Musica and Ninfa, and Ross Hauck, scoring a triple as Pastore 3, Spirito and Apollo, were believable, and without much dramatic misinterpretation.

The “chorus,” made up of the existing soloists, was ultra responsive to the composers’s musical changes in tone and tempo. Dancing in triple time, then slow and more somber, and many times filled with rapid coloratura notes, the singers were a wonder of florid delivery.

Stephen Stubbs conducted ‘Orfeo.’

The members of the orchestra were neatly separated on the stage, with Dark Horse Ensemble wisely placed behind the singers. Pacific MusicWorks Orchestra included violins, violas, gamba, lirone, trumpet and the continuo “band”: harp, theorbo, harpsichord and regal. Henry Lebedinsky, on regal, harpsichord and organ, seemed mind-melded to every soloists and totally in sync with director/theorbist Stubbs, who sat center mass leading with head and rhythmic plucking and strumming.

Alongside the elegant snarl of the brass were jagged gestures in strings and continuo. Rolling chords gave way to delicate plucking, in one moment basking in the longueur of a pastoral ode only to be hurled into an emotional tempest. Segues were made more dramatic by reason of their brevity, moving the action forward with no dead time. All coordinated by a conductor at ease with sudden changes in emotion and action.

Two specific and very different instrumental gestures were heard: the fanfares, used at the outsets of some of the five acts always played with great elan by the Dark Horse Ensemble; and the ritornelli, literally “little return,” a latter day “vamp until ready“ often used by Monteverdi and contemporaries both to provide dramatic transitions, and to allow time to pass while characters were moving on stage.

With the exception of a few moments when winds and singers were on the same level, balances were cordial to the singers. Only once was there a masking of a soloist, where the dark colors of the low setting of the regal got into the same channel as Caronte’s (Matthew Trevino) dramatic ominous tones.

Amusing aside: a ferry company in Italy is called Caronte and Tourist ostensibly for those people who borrowed from the Bank of Diavolo for their Italian trip of “a lifetime”.

When we perform these early works – these glorious revolutionary/evolutionary works – we make a pact. Not one as profound as Orfeo made to bring Euridice back to life. But a pact with the present and the future in which we agree to resuscitate the work in the most authentic way possible. Bravo Stephen Stubbs and bravi tutti for your integrity.

Conductor and educator Bruce Browne is Professor Emeritus at Portland State University and former conductor of Portland Symphonic Choir and Choral Cross Ties. Daryl Browne is a musician, teacher and writer.

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