Washington Classical Review » Blog Archive » Monteverdi meets nô theater with imaginative “Orpheus” from the IN series
During the late Renaissance, Florentine humanists created the first operas in an attempt to revive the art of ancient Greek tragedy. A new production of IN Series and Nohgaku Theater titled The night song of Orpheuswhich started Friday evening at the Source Theater, mixes the first opera of Claudio Monteverdi, The Orfeo, with a more recent tradition from Japan, the Noh theatre. It may not be for dedicated Noh or Monteverdi purists, but it makes for an intriguing night at the theater.
Director Timothy Nelson kept most of the arc from Monteverdi’s familiar opera, premiered in 1607. On the English translation of Christopher Cowell’s libretto, Nelson grafted some selections from Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespro by Beata Vergine. These excerpts are sung to a Japanese text by Eiki Isomura, unfortunately without any translation provided, neither in the program nor in surtitles.
Tenor Tony Boutté has clearly had a night off as Orpheus, the top notes underpowered with small cracks at register changes. This made “Possente spirto”, the character’s signature tune, a little disappointing vocally. Music so powerful that it convinces Charon to take Orpheus across the Styx into the underworld, Orpheus has not sung it in this version to anyone, as Charon and his music have been excised. Violinists Daniel Boothe and Claudia Combs did most of the enchantment, playing their paired echo parts while walking around the edge of the stage space.
The rest of the cast fared much better, sounding impressively strong and unified, especially as an ensemble in chorus numbers like “Deus in adjutorium”, the overture borrowed from Monteverdi. Vespers. Mezzo-soprano Aryssa Leigh Burns shone with a thousand lights, with, among other things, an excellent turn in the role of La Speranza, the allegorical figure who accompanies Orpheus to the underworld. The character is humorously diverted by the famous verse of Dante placed on the gate of hell in Hell, “Abandon hope, all you who enter here”, quoted with great solemnity. (In an interesting twist, Burns will sing the role of Orpheus during select performances.)
Mezzo-soprano Janna Critz also sometimes struggled with intonation, but did a wonderful duet with Burns in “Pulchra es”, another piece borrowed from the Vespers. In the second act, Critz was in regal form as Proserpina, herself moved by the music of Orpheus to convince Pluto to allow Orpheus to lead the shadow of his wife, Eurydice, from the underworld. Baritone Robin McGinness matched her in power as Pluto.
Tenor Oliver Mercer carried much of the musical weight throughout the evening, providing a powerful climax with the voice of the god Apollo, which was performed vividly on stage by the Theater’s Noh performer Akira Matsui. Nohgaku. The insertion of “Duo Seraphim” from the Vespers stole some of the thunder from Orpheus’ “Possente spirto” that followed it, but Mercer gave this sublime piece a lyrical beauty.
Countertenor Hunter Shaner emerged from the set as a messenger, transformed into a woman by his mask and Noh costume. With screaming high notes and static Noh-influenced movements (directed by Jubilith Moore of Theater Nohgaku), Shaner did just the kind of spectacular intervention as a mysterious visitor who informs Orpheus that his wife died of a bite. snake at their wedding party. .
Soprano Mara Yaffee made a tragic Eurydice, echoing Orpheus in another piece inserted from the Vespers, “Audi coelum”, in which she took the echo role in response to her husband, leading her out of hell. This piece, though beautiful, again resembled the gilding of the lily, as it was then followed by the echo tune of The Orfeo“Questi i campi di Tracia.”
Nelson led the evening, also playing both organ and harpsichord, doubled more confidently by Emily Baltzer on another harpsichord. The small Baroque orchestra INnovātiō conveyed a lean sense of score, with two violins, two gambas and a theorbo. Although the cornettos and other instruments usually heard in Monteverdi are overlooked, Richard Emmert has added an unclassifiable element to two instruments of the Noh tradition, the high-pitched flute (fue) and the imposing drum (taiko). It wasn’t until Emmert tried to play the fue with the Baroque instruments that the worlds collided due to violent intonation clashes.
The action took place on a long wooden platform, with the audience seated in a few rows on either side (stage design and costumes by Debra Kim Sivigny). Paper covered the stage, on which the actors painted calligraphic characters, then tore it up at the tragic conclusion of the opera. Long strips of black fabric, waved in the air by the singers, evoked the waves of the Styx in one memorable moment. Paul Callahan’s lighting added golden touches and evoked the darkness of the underworld.
Nelson’s cross-cultural mash-up was ultimately remarkably effective. Long stretches of the less pleasant parts of The Orfeothe recitatives, have been eliminated in favor of a much more complicated music of the Vespers. The ritual parts of Noh theatre, masks and deliberate movements, gave a visual punch to the supernatural elements of Greek history, so familiar to audiences that they are often disappointing.
The juxtaposition of opera and the sacred Vespers recalled that several months after the premiere in Mantua of The Orfeo, in February 1607, Monteverdi himself lost his wife, who died suddenly in September. It was pure coincidence, but the composer probably remembered how his operatic character suffered in the face of his own grief.
The night song of Orpheus runs until September 25, in different locations and cast. inseries.org