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Orfeo: to Hell and back with EMV

Dark Horse and MusicWorks bring Monteverdi proto-opera to Chan Centre

Mind the gap, please, and don't look down. Image: Sir Edward John Poynter

For Halloween and All Souls Day, a special treat this week from our Northwest neighbours: a round-trip ticket to the Netherworld, courtesy of Seattles's Pacific MusicWorks and Portland's Dark Horse Consort.

Without even leaving their seats at the Chan Centre, a full house of Early Music Vancouver (EMV) patrons thrilled to a close encounter with the Lord of Darkness, his infernal Queen, his snarling border guards and demon minions.

No, we're not -- for once -- talking about Trumplandia, but rather the original Hades of Greco-Roman myth, where the titular hero of Claudio Monteverdi's Orfeo ventured to retrieve his lost bride from the grip of Jealous Death.

Monteverdi's masterpiece premiered at the Mantuan court in 1607, just about the same time that Shakespeare was writing Coriolanus and Samuel de Champlain was establishing his New France colony at Port Royal, Nova Scotia. In its day, Orfeo was an unprecedented, radical idea -- a full length, 140-minute drama whose entire vernacular dialogue was sung, rather than spoken; the first recorded instance of "opera," per se.

And how meticulously recorded, too! Uniquely among musical works of that vintage, we have a full-length score for Orfeo, transcribed from the composer's own manuscript, complete with detailed performance directives. The signature arias are even spelled out in plain versus "ornamented" versions, the latter specially adapted to challenge the virtuosi of the Mantuan court ensemble, of which Monteverdi was director at the time.

To their great credit, Dark Horse and MusicWorks tackle the "ornamented" score. All the performers bravely rise to the occasion, especially Vancouver-born tenor Colin Balzer in the title role. His rendering of the showpiece Act III aria Possente Spirto sparkles, not only with its tonal acrobatics but also with its expressive theatricality.

All the more striking as it’s achieved with pure voice and gesture. MusicWorks presents Orfeo as a concert recital, rather than a stage play; no scenery, props, costumes or lighting effects.

That’s a far cry from Orfeo’s original premiere, which mustered all the ingenuity of 17th century stagecraft to dazzle its hyper-elite audience of a couple of dozen grandees in the intimate salon of the Mantuan Academy. By contrast, Balzer and his co-stars, through sheer performance dynamics, managed to project their passion to nearly a thousand EMV aficionados in the four-tiered splendor of the Chan Centre.

Actually, the Vancouver auditorium suited the concert recital better than its cathedral venues in Seattle and Portland, according to MusicWorks director Stephen Stubbs, who conducted Orfeo from behind a “Theorbo” (a two-metre long Renaissance lute).

Here, the acoustics of the hall could be adjusted, with the ceiling lowered and muffling drapery unfurled to accommodate the mellower tone of the period instruments in this HIP (“historically informed performance”) rendition. Then, too, the Chan Centre’s unobstructed sight lines presented everyone in the house with a clear view of the faces and figures of the singers downstage.

If anything, the absence of stagey distractions lent added impact to the emotively fraught mythology. At the Act IV climax, when Orfeo’s triumphant retrieval of his lost love turns first to doubt and then to horror at losing her again, there was an audible gasp from the house.

Nor was Balzer the only one in the cast with such power over the audience. Tess Altiveros brought me close to tears with her troppo dulce e troppo amara as she sank back into Hades forever. Bass-baritone Maththew Trevino, as the Styx ferryman Charon, makes a grimly convincing border guard (complete with sinister five-o’clock shadow).

Alto Mary Feminear announces Euridice’s death in a rueful voice of doom. A quintet of nymphs, shepherds, sprites and demiurges propels the narrative and serves as a chorus to lend tonal colour.   

Just as engaging as the vocalists were the nine instrumentalists of the MusicWorks orchestra. Harpist Maxine Eilander beautifully limned Balzer’s plangent Rendetemi il mio ben. Keyboardist Henry Lebedinski’s organ continuo lent dark resonance to the parlous crossing of the Styx.

The 17th century Mantuan Academicians, who knew their Ovid, had every reason to brace themselves for a gory conclusion from the libretto’s classical source tex – Orpheus, mad with grief, gets dismembered by furious Bacchantes; his severed head floats – still singing – down the idyllic streamlets of his native Thrace.

But that would hardly suit the commemorative occasion of Monteverdi’s original opera commission: a noble marriage-of-state between the ruling houses of Mantua and Savoy.

So instead librettist Alessandro Striggio offers an alternative ending: Orpheus and Euridice immortalized as heavenly constellations, as the chorus optimistically chirps “So they obtain grace in heaven who down here have braved Hell.”

Maybe it’s about Trumplandia after all. If only, if only…



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