Orpheus ascending

Monteverdi’s Orfeo, Richard Conrad, Dolores Ziegler, and John Ferrillo
By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  September 26, 2006

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JOHN FERRILLO: The former Met oboist is the BSO’s most important recent addition.
Chinese-born director Chen Shi-Zheng is the latest in a line of original opera directors (Sarah Caldwell, Peter Sellars) who’ve developed a Boston following. Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo is now the third of his productions for the Handel and Haydn Society (he also directed the Chinese theater piece Snow in June for ART), and he, not Monteverdi, was the center of media attention and got by far the longest program bio for last weekend’s three performances at the Shubert Theatre. Three years ago, the version of Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine (a work never intended for the stage) he created with Indonesian and Chinese dancers had considerable charm, though the worlds of Asia and early-17th-century Italy never really meshed. Last year, he returned to H&H with a Dido and Aeneas so gimmicky and affected that it undermined rather than underlined any connection between what you saw and Purcell’s affecting score. I remember a stage covered with water, not the heavenly music or the heartbreaking story.

But L’Orfeo, the earliest of Monteverdi’s three great surviving operas (1607), was another matter — a bewitching, eye-filling production (in collaboration with the English National Opera) that largely eschewed gimmicks and drew your attention to the music. It helped that British conductor Laurence Cummings (music director of the London Handel Festival) has such vitality in his rhythms, so much drama and atmosphere in his pacing, and such a refined ear for texture; that the period-instrument orchestra played on such a high level (concertmaster Daniel Stepner, Stephen Hammer on recorder, Michael Beattie on harpsichord, John Grimes on percussion, Barbara Poeschl-Edrich on the double harp); that the dancers from Java’s Orange Island Dance Company were exquisite and very musical (visa difficulties, apparently, almost prevented them from getting here); and that most of the singing was superb.

Cheng’s designer, Tom Pye, created starkly elegant backdrops with scrims that moved to the music (not unlike, though less elaborate than, Adrianne Lobel’s magical shifting flats for Mark Morris’s L’Allegro) and a little see-through (rice paper?) wedding house for Orpheus and Eurydice whose roof was later turned upside down to become Charon’s slow-moving boat crossing the River Styx, and whose floor — surrounded by fluorescent lights — became Eurydice’s bier. Elizabeth Caitlin Ward’s costumes ranged from elegant modern cocktail dresses for the women guests at Orpheus and Eurydice’s wedding and untucked shirts for the drunken men to sarong-like dresses and clinging cutoffs for the dancers, who played both servers balancing trays heaped with food and mourners.

The high point was the scene between Orpheus (tenor Tom Randle) and Charon (awe-inspiring Boston baritone Robert Honeysucker), with some dancers slowly sliding Charon’s boat over the dark stage and others carrying lanterns, one dangling from a long, bending pole, in what was like a scene out of Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu. In the Underworld, Proserpina approaches Pluto to ask him to allow Eurydice to return with Orpheus to the world of the living by stepping across the stage on the backs of two dancers on all fours, each scurrying to replace the other as she progresses.

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