Magazine article The Spectator

Opera: L'Orfeo, Duke Bluebeard's Castle

Magazine article The Spectator

Opera: L'Orfeo, Duke Bluebeard's Castle

Article excerpt

The ancient Greeks had a word for it --katabasis, descending into the depths, to the underworld itself, in search of answers. To cross the threshold between life and death, innocence and knowledge, the everyday and what lies beyond, is an act woven through art, resurfacing in each generation. For Orpheus, and for Monteverdi, the journey may be a literal one, but for Bartok's Bluebeard, imagined in the age of Freud and Jung, hell is not found outside, or even in other people, but within the darkest recesses of our own selves.

When we speak of Orpheus it is of music, of birds and beasts beguiled, and men and women drawn into dance. But beginning with the tortoise shell and the gut strings that made up the very first lyre, this is music conjured from death, pain transfigured into beauty. If you look at paintings and sculpture -- works by André Masson, Jacques Lipchitz, Ossip Zadkine -- often the man and his instrument become one, fused into a single living lyre. Orpheus is split open, music vibrating from within his own belly. The act of musical creation is also an act of self-destruction, a sacrifice of life for art's sake.

Monteverdi understood this. He gave us the blazing glory of L'Orfeo's opening brass toccata, but also the bittersweet string ritornello that is the work's musical touchstone, the searching, yearning agony of Orfeo's plea 'Possente spirto'. There's dancing and joy and irrepressible energy to John Eliot Gardiner and Elsa Rooke's urgent concert staging, but there's also more darkness, more pain than you find in the opera house, where the work's interior drama is too easily diluted by spectacle.

It's interesting to see just how much Gardiner's thinking has moved on since his performance of L'Orfeo at the 2015 BBC Proms -- a warm-up, it now seems, for his current year-long international tour of the three Monteverdi operas. Even allowing for the particular space and crowd, that staging was a celebration, a drama where loss was cushioned by delight in music itself. But now there's a sense that, even if Monteverdi cannot bear to give his hero an authentically bloody end at the hands of the maenads, Gardiner would like to.

With more roles than singers, casting in L'Orfeo is as much interpretation as practicality. Where previously Gardiner doubled the roles of La Musica and the Messenger, here he pairs La Musica with Euridice. That one singer (immaculate soprano Hana Blazikova, severely beautiful of tone) should serve as both muse and beloved to Krystian Adam's Orfeo makes this quite a different story. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.