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L'Orfeo on DVD from Barcelona, Amsterdam & La Scala, Milan

Monteverdi - La favola d'Orfeo

Montserrat Figueras, Furio Zanasi, Arianna Savall, Sara Mingardo, Gloria Banditelli, Antonio Abete, Daniele Carnovich, Fulvio Bettini, Gerd Türk, Francesc Garrigosa and Carlos Mena

La Capella Reial de Catalunya & Le Concert des Nations
Conductor; Jordi Savall

Production and stage director: Gilbert Deflo
Designer: William OrlandiLighting: Albert Faura
Choreography: Anna Casas

Recorded at Gran Teatre de Liceu, Barcelona , 2002

BBC Opus Arte OA 0842 D [140 mins]


Claudio Monteverdi himself strides through the audience to conduct this resplendent revival of his 1607 opera La favola d'Orfeo, as you can see by clicking onto the preview clip at Opus Arte's website!

L'Orfeo has enjoyed many recent performances and now holds an established place in the repertoire despite its extant score being limited, requiring editing and arrangement for modern performance, with inevitable differences of opinion. Monteverdi is credited with having been the first composer to give overall priority to the expression of feelings and the portrayal of passions, and it is that which gives L'Orfeo enduring life nearly 400 years on.

This is a sumptuous and original production by Gilbert Deflo, which is ideal for home viewing, evokes how it might have looked in the Hall of Mirrors of the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua , where the opera was first performed, yet bringing in modern theatrical capabilities of the Gran Teatre de Liceu in Barcelona , rebuilt after the disastrous 1994 fire. The insert summarises Virgil's ‘richest and fullest' version of the Orpheus myth

The cast is strong throughout, their consistent singing style that developed by Savall over many years. The stage design and deployment of the singers and dancers is often extremely beautiful, as is the screen picture, whether in the meadows of Arcadia or in the underworld, the pacing of their movements and gestures owing something to Japanese Noh. The lighting is notable, with the masked Charon ferrying Orfeo across the Styx an especially memorable image.Deflo explains that he took overall responsibility for coordinating the work of his team ‘to serve the composer'.

The listening experience is immeasurably enhanced by subtitles in language of choice, particularly necessary in this opera because the action is taken forward mainly by the soloists in recitativo cantado , though set off by choral episodes and dances. For its premiere, the elite audience of no more than 200 was provided with the libretto. Without our having been able to follow the text closely, there would be an intrinsic danger that monotony could set in from protracted recitative, beautifully expressive though that is.

The extras are rewarding. The synopsis is given on screen instead of in printed notes, identifying the singers with their pictures. Gilbert Deflo gives a fascinating talk about the background of his stunning production, straight to camera and without notes, from the Palazzo Ducale, telling us how mirrors inspired him with his conception of taking the audience into the different world of Arcadia . The action is initiated by Musica (Montserrat Figueras) appearing as a 17 C woman, and dressing Savall as Monteverdi, after the Strozzi portrait, was an essential part of Deflo's vision. With the musicians dressed similarly, the contemporary audience is quickly transported back into the 17 C. Originally L'Orfeo combined intimacy and festivity; Deflo has succeeded in transferring those qualities into the large Barcelona theatre and into our homes.

Monteverdi and other baroque opera seems to translate well onto DVD; explore also the very different but equally delectable Arthaus DVD of Poppea.

(First published in The Opera Critic December 2002)

Monteverdi - L'Orfeo

John Mark Ainsley, Brigitte Balleys, Michael Chance, David Cordier, Mario Luperi, Russell Smythe
Tragicomedia and Concerto Palatino / Stephen Stubbs
De Nederlandse Opera Stage Director Pierre Audi

Opus Arte DVD OA0928 D

L'Orfeo has been well served by imaginative modern directors in the opera house and on DVD. John Mark Ainsley has made the role of Orfeo his own and after having seen him last week in the opera's latest reincarnation at ENO I have welcomed the opportunity to watch this production from Amsterdam of nearly a decade ago.

As seen on screen it is a vivid, if also in some ways minimal, staging with an infinity of inventive subtleties to savour; arguably better to do so at home where, with the aid of splendid filming, every detail tells, which might not have been everyone's experience in the opera house, even though Pierre Audi contrives to have the action brought forward to the audience.

The stylisation, with a nod to Noh, has an intensity which I did not find in the distracting, decorative contributions of the Javanese dancers brought to London by Chen Shi-Zheng, and Ainsley's movements reflecting his changing emotions are far more involving as seen from Holland. There are also illuminating discussions supporting the filmed performance, as tend to be provided with Pierre Audi's searching productions.

Both the Barcelona and Amsterdam versions are so different, and so excellent in their different ways, that purchase of the two is recommended, and would come to no more expenditure than a reasonable seat at ENO!

For two enthusiastic opinions of the Amsterdam/Audi version which tally with our own responses see Opera Today and a review on Amazon:

The Best Yet (J Scott Morrison, Amazon December 21, 2005)

- - This 'L'Orfeo' from a 1997 production of the Netherlands Opera has a marvelous cast of singers, including perhaps the best Orfeo I've ever seen/heard in tenor John Mark Ainsley. The single set is very plain except for the round pool of water upstage. It represents, of course, in Act III, the River Styx. Much of the rest of the time it is either invisible, because of the exceedingly skillful lighting by Jean Kalman, or used for various symbolic purposes; the stage is often in darkness, a contrast with high-key lighting on the singers. Costumes are stylized robes in rich colors and fabrics. - - Pierre Audi has devised a good deal of action, particularly with the chorus, but also with the principals, that keeps them in motion much of the time - - a feast for the eyes as well as for the ears.

'L'Orfeo' presents significant musical challenges - - Stephen Stubbs, the musical director, and indeed he spends several pages in the DVD's booklet explaining some of his choices- -also in the informative twenty minute documentary made during rehearsals. Ainsley's long scene, 'Possente spirto', contains some of the most far-ranging virtuosic singing one will ever encounter in early opera, and Ainsley does it beautifully - - a couple of other 'Orfeos' on DVD and this one, in my opinion, is the best musically and certainly the most visually effective, if a bit stylized. I recommend it without reservation


Monteverdi: L'Orfeo

Filmed & recorded live at La Teatro alla Scala 21st & 23rd December 2009

Georg Nigl (Orfeo), Roberta Invernizzi (Euridice), Sara Mingardo (Messaggera), Sara Mingardo (Speranza), Luigi De Donato (Caronte), Raffaella Milanesi (Proserpina), Giovanni Battista Parodi (Plutone), Roberta Invernezzi (Eco), Furio Zanasi (Apollo) & Nicola Strada (Solo Dancer)

Orchestra of Teatro alla Scala & Concerto Italiano/Basso continuo: Rinaldo Alessandrini (conductor)

Robert Wilson (director)

Opus Arte: OA1044D


The 2007 CDs for the 400th anniversary Monteverdi's L'Orfeo which preceded this filmed live performance were acclaimed as a peak of Monteverdi scholarship and modern performance. Alessandrini had prepared a new version based on original scores which shed new light on this great work. "The singers in the production are exceptional and Furio Zanasi is the peerless Orfeo, probably today's greatest interpreter of the role of Orpheus" [The Guardian *****]

L'Orfeo has fared well on DVD (this is the second from Opus Arte) and we have warmly recommended the films made at Barcelona and Amsterdam (above).

This newest addition to the catalogue is more problematic. Musically, it is a first choice because Rinaldo Allesandrini is the contemporary Monteverdi expert. We have recommended his Naive CDs effusively, and collectors who prefer the visual experience should not pass the DVD by, despite warnings to follow.

Furio Zanasi (who appears briefly here as Apollo) is replaced as Orfeo by Austrian baritone Georg Nigl, who comes in for heavy criticism in Opera Today's review of the La Scala premiere of this version, as does Robert Wilson for his signature-production.

Nigl, says Michael Milenski " - - is better known on major European stages as a Wozzeck. He has a sizable voice and persona that is well able to fill large theaters. He lacks both a beautiful voice and a sympathetic presence, thus he was unable to project the strong humanity that overflows much mannerist art and particularly these emotionally heightened Monteverdi monologues". Of the production, "Mr Wilson has struck out again, a few distinguished early music singers exercising abstracted hand and arm gestures and stilted dance movements, and a well-known Wozzeck screeching Orfeo in whiteface".

This production is very formalized and my wife quickly gave up on it, though we had enjoyed Wilson's Aida in Brussels and on DVD.

I found it absorbing, but needed to take it in small parts, an Act at a time. She rejoined me later, and we both found its minimalist way quietly compelling, with strictly controlled movements and a deliberately limited colour palette. It becomes vey dark indeed in Hades and I confess to regretting the rather sudden explosive end to all hope and the lack of Che faro, but all is made well at the end by Apollo...

So, finally, it is recommendable, but not for everyone and not as a first choice. On Bluray and a large screen it has a certain magnificence.

Peter Grahame Woolf

© Peter Grahame Woolf