Review: La favola d’Orfeo

By John D’armand | For the Capital City Weekly

Decades ago, I received a postcard from a student who was a Wagner aficionado. It read, “Last night, I went to Bayreuth. Now I have nothing to live for.” That’s similar to my experience with our local production of “L’Orfeo” by composer Claudio Monteverdi and librettist Alessandro Striggio. How Todd Hunt, forever diving expertly into this and that musical medium, had the ambition, knowledge, and perseverance to stage this seldom heard 1607 opera in this wee town of ours is beyond my ken! His precise conducting, supported by the unobtrusively and dramatically reïnforcing staging by Sarah Schäfer Calvert, kept the attention of the audience on the movement of the drama.

First of all, I walked into the hall and read the message projected above the proscenium: “Cerberus has been trained to fetch a soul at the sound of a cell phone’s chime”. Immediately, I reached into my pocket and turned my cell ‘phone off, saving myself from that three-headed canine’s vicious retribution!

Then came the opera! The stage was unique in my experience. It was somewhat narrow and surrounded the instrumentalists, thus allowing the characters of the drama to move freely around the orchestra. Some of them even strolled around the audience while playing their rôles.

The plot was simple. Orfeo loved Eurydice and spent the first part of the opera singing about his adoration for her. Suddenly, the plot thickened! He learned that Eurydice had been bitten fatally by an asp. Hello, Cleopatra and Dido! Did opera heroines die from anything else in those days?

At the news, heartbroken Orfeo, portrayed convincingly by Sumner Thompson, sang his famous lament, “Tu se’ morta”, with more feeling than I ever had heard it rendered. He then descended to the netherworld. En route, he lulled ferryman Caronte to sleep and commandeered his ferry. Quite cleverly in this production, dancer Bridget Gehring, with hypnotic movements, eased Caronte out of the scene. This was a bit of a disappointment to me, for Peter Morgan, as Caronte, had been singing smoothly, resonantly, and, well, lusciously. Nevertheless, Orfeo, again by his beautiful singing, won the sympathy of Apollo, who granted him permission to return Eurydice whence she had come. Say, what was this righteous lady doing down there in the first place?

Anyway, Orfeo was enjoined not to look back at his beloved en route home. Alas, rather than riding off into the sunset and living happily ever after, he glanced back, and she disappeared (rather than turning into a pillar of salt as did Lot’s wife). In the original Greek myth, Eurydice disappears forever. In this production, however, Apollo, with significant help from Monteverdi, allows Orfeo to see her thereafter in the stars. If that’s a happy ending, why am I not smiling?

If you didn’t attend this production, you are a most unfortunate being! It was outstanding in every way! One of the most memorable features was the almost ubiquitous group of young dancers from Juneau Dance Theatre. Their simple but precise movements enhanced every scene in which they appeared.

Kathleen Wayne portrayed Eurydice beautifully. Sadly, that mean old asp cut her performance short, but she’d sung enough to reveal why Orfeo had fallen head over heels in love with her.

When the singers sang tout ensemble, they produced a balance and stentorian fullness worthy of any choral performance. Shawn Damerval projected translations of the Italian lines above the proscenium, thus enhancing the audience’s comprehension of the libretto. How many towns the size of Juneau go to this extent?

Many of the singers broke into small groups for specific contributions to the drama, and they carried this responsibility admirably. Unusually impressive was the duet singing of Zebadiah Bodine and Steven Arends.

The costumes were of many colors, but all were muted. Such was designer Valerie Snyder’s recognition of the sartorial contribution to the tragic mood of the drama.

Keep in mind that equal temperament was still all but a dream, and many instruments that would adopt it with ease later had not been manufactured yet! Recently, a reviewer criticized a harpist for using “too much pedal”. In this performance, the harp had three layers of strings and no pedals at all. Have you ever attended a performance anywhere and seen the two necks of a theorbo? Thanks to visiting artists with their unique instruments, this opera presented sounds never before heard in Juneau. It was to be 115 years before Bach demonstrated equal temperament with Das wohltemperierte Klavier.

Realization of the figured bass by the instrumentalists made this performance unlike any other. The singers were aware of the freedom to ornament their lines, which they did so tastefully. Goat trills, employed in this production with subtlety, were common when “L’Orfeo” was composed.

Instrumentalists Sharon Hatch, Jamila Hla Shwe, Tomoko Sugawara, August Denhard, John Lutterman, and Paul Shipper brought their unique instruments from far and wide to contribute to the authenticity of the rendition of this early work. The only justice to the performance would be to mention the name of everyone involved. However, in this delicate occupation of review-writing, it seems that mentioning one is to slight another. Therefore, I’ll shout a lusty “Bravi” to the entire group of artists involved as I wonder how any production in Juneau’s future could top this one!

• A teacher of singing, Dr. d’Armand is Executive Director of The Paul Ulanowsky Memorial Foundation for Chamber Musicians.