Stefano Landi’s La morte d’Orfeo of 1619 is interesting for several reasons. It’s one of relatively few operas from this early in the history of the art form that we have enough information on to perform. It was also written in and for Rome so it reflects the clerical influences of that environment rather than the more secular Venice of Monteverdi. It’s also an unusual take on the Orfeo legend. It takes off from where Monteverdi and many others leave off. Euridice is dead, for good this time, and the opera deals with the balance of Orfeo’s life. Briefly, he is heartbroken and renounces Pleasure; including wine and women. He compounds this by not inviting Bacco to a birthday celebration attended by most of the other gods. Bacco and his female followers are not pleased. Orfeo is torn to pieces by the Maenads. Orfeo is quite OK with this because now he will be united with Euridice but Charon refuses to take him; a demi-god, across the Styx. Mercury fetches Euridice from the Elysian Fields but she has drunk from Lethe and doesn’t recognise him. She’s quite clear that she wants nothing to do with this so-called Orfeo. Giove makes it up to Orfeo (who also drinks the water of Lethe and forgets Euridice) by making him into a constellation and all the gods rejoice. (for consistency’s sake I’ve used the Italianised versions of the Roman versions of the various Greek characters in the same way as the libretto).
Musically, it’s subtly different from Monteverdi. The instrumental music and the solo vocal writing is not so different but there are lots of choruses. These are rather like madrigals with many parts and lots of repetition and are probably the most musically interesting thing on offer. There are also many characters with singers singing multiple roles and singing in the ensembles which, in turn, represent many different collective groups. (This isn’t helped by the use of the Italian/Roman versions of Greek names which may not all be obvious to English speakers.). It’s quite unusual and interesting as long as one keeps the characters straight and one has a taste for classical allegory overlaid with a bit of Catholic symbolism.
The production is by Pierre Audi; his last in fact for Dutch National Opera, and it was performed and recorded in the Muziekgebouw aan’t IJ in 2018. Now that venue is mostly a contemporary music venue and from what I can see it’s smaller than a typical opera house and not really equipped for scene changes etc; a bit like Koerner Hall but likely smaller. So the set is simple and barely modified through five acts and one gets the sense of seeing the action fairly close up.. In fact the set is really just a floor painted in a geometric patter, a large sofa and a few props. Costumes are sort of “modern allegorical”. Euridice wears an elegant white number, Apolline. wears a sort of spangly dressing gown and so on… It works and is visually quite interesting as long as you can keep the cast of often rather obscure characters straight.
It’s very much an ensemble performance and it doesn’t seem fair to single out individual members of the cast; who all perform more than adequately. That said, the Orfeo is tenor Juan Francisco Gattel and he’s excellent. Cecilia Molinari who sings Euridice and several other parts was the most notable of a quartet of mezzos though presumably in Rome in 1619 these roles would have been sung by castrati. The pit band is the excellent Les Talens Lyriques with their usual leader Christophe Rousset. There may be other baroque ensembles as good but none better in this sort of music I think. All up it’s a very good performance.
The Blu-ray version of the recording has an exceptionally good picture and is well directed for video by Misjel Vermeiren. The stereo sound is very good (I listened mostly on ‘phones what with both of us being home most of the time these days) but there’s definitely something extra to the choruses when listened to in surround sound (DTS-HD-MA). The sound engineers did a really good job on that mix. The booklet has a rather condensed synopsis and a track listing that helps keep who’s who straight. There’s also an essay by Pierre Audi explaining his reasons for doing the piece and his approach to it. Subtitle options are Italian,, English, French, German, Korean and Japanese.
So, an interesting rarity that students of early opera or lovers of Monteverdi will likely find interesting.