Only twenty years ago, one would never fancy to see any of Claudio Monteverdi’s operas in an important opera house, but the increasing popularity of baroque music and (most probably) the colorful libretto of L’Incoronazione di Poppea has brought the work of this Italian composer to the general public in places like Paris* and Madrid. The less theatrically flamboyant L’Orfeo has not had the same luck. The Bavarian State Opera decided last year to take the lead by presenting a new staging cast from its own roster. The première conductor, Ivor Bolton, opted to be mostly faithful to the instrumental forces used by Monteverdi himself back in 1607. For that purpose, a continuo ensemble has been added to a group of members of the Bavarian State Orchestra.
For many, the main source of interest is the casting of the German Lieder-singing “superstar” Christian Gerhaher in the title role. This is a repertoire he is not usually associated to. I, for instance, have never heard him say let alone sing a word in a language other than German. I had very low expectations and, therefore, cannot truly vouch for my mostly positive impression: his Italian is not idiomatic, but more than acceptably delivered; his coloratura is not a model of accuracy, but is fluent and generally effortless; his purity of line stands for baroque style, except when he verges on veteran-Fischer-Dieskau-like hectoring in high and louder-than-piano passages (truth be said, rarely); his fastidiousness and lack of fondness for legato less problematic in this more declamatory music. At any rate, taking in consideration the variety of his repertoire and the difficulty of the task, one can easily deem this performance successful, especially from a baritone. His Euridice was the sensuous sounding Elsa Benoit, while Anna Stéphany was grainy yet sensitive and stylish as Musica and Speranza. Having Anna Bonitatibus as the Messaggera and Proserpina, however, had the effect of exposing the liability of the performance as a whole. Monteverdi’s music requires an absolute mastery of the natural rhythm of Italian language. This is particularly noticeable in florid passages, where inexpert ears fail to distinguish the “main” notes from embellishment. One just needs to turn to Jordi Savall’s video where the not truly impeccable Furio Zanasi is rhythmically always right on the mark and therefore fully understandable even during extremely florid passages. Accordingly, Savall responds to his cast with more vivid and contrasted tempi and more expressive playing. But it would be unfair not to praise conductor Cristopher Moulds and his instrumentalists – this was stylish and beautiful music-making.
David Bösch’s imaginative production never ceased to offer the audience something to watch, by virtue of detailed stage direction to soloists and choristers and use of stage devices. His re-interpretation of the libretto is intelligent and subtle if very depressing. I only wish the lighting could add a little bit more difference between what goes in the world of the living and that of the dead. Unless this was a dramatic point I did not notice…
*It would be unfair to overlook the fact that the Opéra de Paris dared to stage it in 1978… with Gwyneth Jones, Jon Vickers, Christa Ludwig and Nicolai Ghiaurov.