Silent Opera, 27 January 2012
Emmanuelle Haïm's recording of L'Orfeo, with an especially dramatic opening toccata.
An unecessary gimmick and poor acting doesn't undermine this strangely quiet tragedy.
The courtly origins of the first major opera can be detected in some of its characteristic longeurs, which surely would have been cut for a paying public. The endless marriage ceremony, the extended mourning scenes, even the lengthy soporofic 'possente spirto', all of these are closer to an entertainment than a focussed drama.
This, combined with the heightened singing speech of Monteverdi, produces a contemplative, serene effect unlike any other music drama.
Presented well, the wedding bliss makes the bride's death all the more affecting, and the subsequent mourning establishes the motive for Orfeo's challenge to death. The following success, his understandable sense of triumph, then his equally understandable doubt over his abilities, and the possibility of a cruel trick, push his final loss of Eurydice into tragedy.
Overall, a gentle tragedy, lacking hyperbole. Its ending must have presented its creators with a dilemma, and indeed we know of two.
The original draft ending, with Orfeo being torn apart, is therefore something of a dilemma. It seems appropriate yet at the same time the eruption of such extreme violence disturbs the mood of the pice. On the other hand, the second ending, which I heard here, does little more than end the music successfully.
Daisy Evans' promenade production retains most of the elegance and doesn't attempt too many special effects. Costume is a hybrid of renaissance and modern, which is a little confusing, and the libretto is a mix of the original Italian (for the udnerworld scenes) and Evans' English translation, which is well enunciated and commendably clear.
Silent Opera have a gimmick: the audience wears headphones throughout the performance, and the music is relayed there.
This might imply there are no musicians or singers in the performnce, and everything is mimed to a pre-recorded track, but that was not the case. The characters were played by singers, for the most part, who actually sang. And while some of the accompaniment was prerecorded (which cuts costs, i guess), some of it was also live.
The headphones allow for some added everberation and special aural effects, but robably added little to the performance, and detracted from our ability to tell who was actually singing.
The singing itself was adequate, though not astonishing, and the acting ws surprisingly rudimentary. Orchestration choices were generous, though not outlandishly so. The conducting, especially in the overture, could have been more dramatic and phrasing more incisive, as in Emmanuelle Haïm's recording.