The Boston Early Music Festival's annual chamber opera was Monteverdi's Orfeo, a work about both the power and the limitation of music. It is sometimes regarded as the first real opera (that is, not just a sung play), though in 1607 there were no opera houses. It's a marvelous work — the music brilliant and indelible from its very first notes: a brass fanfare that's one of the glories of Western music, followed by a ritornello (a recurring musical theme) that's equally unforgettable. With the all-star BEMF Chamber Ensemble under the musical direction of lutenists Stephen Stubbs and Paul O'Dette (here playing gigantic chitarrones), and with the glittering Concerto Palatino ensemble of cornettos and Baroque trombones, the music was in great hands. Every sound, every noise (that growling, organ-like regal) glowed with vibrant life.

And what a group of excellent singers, some from close to home. Soprano Teresa Wakim was a strong Proserpina, and tenor Charles Blandy sang both shepherd and spirit with great dignity. Tenor Jason McStoots was in more focused voice later as Apollo than earlier as a shepherd. And the increasingly impressive bass-baritone Douglas Williams almost stole the show as the otherworldly, underworldly ferryman Charon; his bigger and richer voice made Charon a much larger figure than bass-baritone Olivier Laquerre's thinner-voiced Pluto. And most remarkable of all was tenor Aaron Sheehan, who made a moving Orpheus in the demanding title role. His long, quasi-aria plea to Charon had the evening's best trills and rapidly repeating trillos.

The visitors were no slouches either. Eloquent Toronto soprano Shannon Mercer was the performer with the greatest success in projecting the underlying emotion behind the artificial gesture. Her long, heartfelt narrative about the death of Euridice was one of the evening's high points. Canadian-American soprano Mireille Asselin was an ideal Euridice, who also sang the allegorical role of Music in the prologue. Vocally glistening, she was also the best dancer among the singers.

But there are some big "buts." Stage director Gilbert Blin, who surprised me with his inspired staging of last year's big BEMF production of Steffani's Niobe, let me down once again with his gimmicky and clunky staging of chamber opera. I'm getting increasingly impatient with stage directors who feel they have to add something to distract us from the music itself when the music itself is of more than sufficient interest.

As in Blin's previous chamber productions, there was some nonsense about a troupe of actors arriving at the house where the performance would be taking place. So during that stunning overture, we were forced to watch the players wheeling in their pushcart full of costumes. How could this be more important than letting us hear undisturbed one of the greatest musical passages in Monteverdi? There was the graceful and attractive dancer, Carlos Fittante, in various masked roles (Pan, Hymen, the gods of Death and Love and Silence — none of these in the libretto), as a kind of perpetually interfering jester, turning up center stage to distract our attention from whatever was occurring of some dramatic significance. Because he moved so well, his presence made the movements of the rest of the cast seem awkward and stiff. Then there was Blin's even worse idea of having the singers unscroll hard-to-read banners that informed us of some element of the plot (which we already knew) or provided some sort of moral.

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