Friday, February 7, 2014

Monteverdi's L'Orfeo -- the first opera

Gods incognito, gods enchanted, envious gods, conniving gods, sympathetic gods . . . and two mortals clinging to each other in their midst. Cincinnati Chamber Opera, in conjunction with the Cincinnati Early Music Festival, will present a performance of the oldest surviving opera, Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, Feb. 14 and 15, 2014, directed by Shawn Mlynek. Its subtitle is “A Fable in Music.” And what do the gods represent in such fables, but all that is uncontrollable in our lives:  chance, fate, and the actions of others?  It is said that we are defined not by what happens to us but by how we respond.  Orpheus’ response to life is to love—to love Eurydice and to love music, and to stay true to that love in spite of the uncontrollables that besiege him.  

In the early 17th century a group of composers began experimenting with the concept of a dramatic narrative told entirely through music.  There were a few wild throws, and then in 1607 Claudio Monteverdi brought to the stage his creation, a re-telling of the Orpheus myth, and opera was truly born.  Monteverdi was a brilliant composer in all the fields he had tried—church music, instrumental music, madrigals—but with this work he discovered that he had a genius for drama as well.  The characters vibrate with life, the music shimmers with passion.

The central moment of the work is in Act III. Orpheus has arrived at the banks of the river Styx, where he begs the ferryman to carry him across.  Charon stubbornly refuses.  Desperate, Orpheus summons all his gifts to sing the extraordinary aria Possente spirto.  He sings of music, and the power it wields over all creation; he sings of his own remarkable abilities, given to him by the gods; and at last he sings of his love for Eurydice, of how her death has extinguished the light from his life.  The vocal line, which until then has been showy and elaborate, sheds all ornamentation to reveal this final stark truth. “I am Orfeo,” he declares, “who has come to this dark place where no mortal man should be.  I cannot cross without you, and I cannot live without her.”  

Orpheus makes two journeys in the course of the opera.  One is to the underworld and back, as told by the plot.  The other is told in the music itself:  Monteverdi uses key changes, dissonances, and the character of the music to show Orpheus’ emotional journey through the shattering events of his wedding day.  Upon hearing of Eurydice’s death, Orpheus — the man whose very essence is self-expression in music – becomes “mute as a stone”.  Later he returns to himself by singing that extraordinary declaration in the face of an angry god.  And finally, nature itself begins to lead him to a state of grace as the rocks and hills answer his laments with an echo transformed by sympathy and comfort.  Music is both the subject of the story and the storyteller.   What could be more appropriate for the world’s first opera?

Shawn Mlynek
Cincinnati Chamber Opera is the brainchild of Shawn Mlynek and Autumn West.  Both recent CCM grads, they felt a need in Cincinnati for opportunities for young singers to sing ambitious roles, to get inside their craft right at the beginning of their careers.  They both know that one has to make one’s own opportunities, rather than hope for lucky chances.  Mlynek, a busy working tenor based in Cincinnati, appreciates the production side of things:  “When your name is on the project, it has to be something you’re proud of.”  West, a soprano who has performed both in this country and in Europe, is focused on her singing and teaching career, but has been surprised to find how satisfying it is to work behind the scenes.  “Singers today need to wear many hats.  Coordinating rehearsal schedules, costumes and sets, working with instrumentalists, stepping up to whatever is needed at any given moment—it all requires its own kind of artistry.”  

Autumn West
After a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign, they staged their first production, Handel’s Acis and Galatea in February 2013, followed by the Haydn opera Il Mondo della Luna last fall.  The performances are intimate, which is in keeping with their roots—L’Orfeo, after all, was originally performed in a room too small to stage it properly.  By keeping things small, personal, and unintimidating, Mlynek and West hope to bring in people who have never attended opera before. They reach out especially to young people.  By keeping ticket prices low they draw even high school students, who might never experience opera otherwise.

The imaginative staging will include a cast of eleven soloists, plus chorus. True to the composer’s original intent, there will also be dancers, led by choreographer Alexandra Kassouf.  Harpsichord and organ will accompany.  All in all, it will be a unique theatrical event.  Bring a date, for a Valentine’s Day story of enduring love.

Feb 14 & 15, 7:00pm, Christ Church Cathedral downtown.  Tickets $17 adults, $15 students/seniors

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