Monteverdi to the max: Chicago’s Harris Theater kicks off rare opera cycle with a captivating, revelatory “L’Orfeo”

October 14, 2017
Krystian Adam as Orfeo and Hana Blazikova as Euridice in Monteverdi's "L'Orfeo" performed Thursday night at the Harris Theater. Photo: Michael Brosilow

Krystian Adam as Orfeo and Hana Blazikova as Euridice in Monteverdi’s “L’Orfeo” performed Thursday night at the Harris Theater. Photo: Michael Brosilow

Monteverdi madness has begun.

The Harris Theater opened its season Thursday night with the Italian composer’s L’Orfeo—the first of three operas by Claudio Monteverdi to be performed through Sunday by the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists led by conductor John Eliot Gardiner

Gardiner and colleagues have been taking their “Monteverdi 450” tour across Europe since last April to mark the 450th birthday anniversary of the Italian master. Chicago is one of only two U.S. stops with the project wrapping up in New York next week.

To say anticipation was strong for this event would be an understatement. With the upper balcony open, the entire house was sold out Thursday night. How often does that happen for classical events at the Harris Theater?

Chicago opera audiences will have imbibed the Orpheus narrative by now, with Gluck’s Orphee et Eurydice having opened Lyric Opera’s season.  Orfeo sings of his joyous love for Eurydice but as he prepares for their wedding, is devastated by the sudden death of his beloved. Led by Hope (Love in Gluck’s opera), he descends to the Underworld, and using his vocal powers lulls the boatman Caronte to sleep so he may pass. At the urging of his wife Proserpine, Pluto agrees to bring Eurydice back to life and let Orfeo take his beloved away. But Orfeo breaks the agreement by looking back as he leads Eurydice, and she is returned to the Underworld as Orfeo laments his fate.

Written in 1607 L’Orfeo–billed at its premiere as “a play in music”—was Monteverdi’s first opera, and had much to do with creating the genre we know today. The Renaissance style is still prominent in the madrigal-like vocal writing and variations over a firm bass line. Even earlier models are manifest with the chorus’s frequent commentary on the action continuing down from Greek tragedies and Italian pastorals. Yet one can also see the looming Baroque era in the richer orchestral textures and elaborate vocal set pieces, with Monteverdi’s detailed precision in laying out notation and ornamentation for singers and instrumentalists alike.

Historical significance apart, what really came across in Thursday night’s exhilarating Orfeo was the invention, color and sheer infectious joy of the music as presented by Gardner and his versatile and accomplished cast and orchestra. Anyone who still thinks of early opera as a dry and ascetic experience needs to come to the Harris Theater this weekend.

This Orfeo was as theatrical and engaging as one could possibly imagine. Under Gardiner’s organic and idiomatic direction every element was executed at such a high level that it made manifest that L’Orfeo is not only an important historic work but a rich, touching and very human opera.

In the usual “concert performance” of an opera, singers clad in formalwear sit stiffly on chairs waiting for their moment, rising to sing and then sitting back down.

Gardiner’s Orfeo presented something completely different. With the English Baroque Soloists stationed on either side of the Harris stage there was enough room in the middle for the drama to be acted out.  Gardiner and co-director Elsa Rooke used the stage and industrial space with striking imagination. The singers entered the theater from the back on either side descending the stairs and then up to the stage as the brassy opening “Toccata” was played.  Offstage events and voices were atmospherically placed high on the scaffolding on either side.

But more than resourceful stage management, it was the wonderful singing and robust panache of the performances by the entire cast that made the evening so remarkable and captivating. Performed without intermission and just a short pause between the middle acts, the two hours flew by. Even the usually bronchial Chicago audience was silent, entranced by the music and staging.

Krystian Adam was astounding in the principal role of Orfeo, the Polish tenor proving ideal both vocally and dramatically. Adam’s lean, supple voice was expressive throughout, conveying all the yearning, anger, affection and joy of Orfeo’s desperate situations. In the opera’s celebrated high point, “Possente Spirto”–Orfeo’s extended plea to the boatman Caronte to take him across the river Styx–Adam handled all the dizzying embellishments immaculately with elegant yet ardent artistry. (The alternating ritornellos by the pipe organ, pairs of violins and cornetti and especially, harpist Gwyneth Wentink, were equally eloquent.)

Hana Blazikova took on duo roles. As Musica in the opening Prologue, she set the high level of singing for the evening, deftly accompanying herself on a small lyre as reflected in the text. As the ill-fated Euridice, she was a lovely, affecting presence singing with pure and radiant tone.

Lea Desandre was equally moving, making much of the small role of Silvana the Messenger who delivers the news of Euridice’s death. The young soprano’s gamin-like presence and depth of guilty despair at bringing the ill tidings, was a highlight of the evening.

Gianluca Buratto was wonderfully weird as the boatman Caronte, singing with a deep and melodious voice and stalking around the stage during Orfeo’s showpiece. The Italian bass also doubled nicely as a dignified Plutone. As his wife Proserpina, Francesca Boncompagni made the most of her plea on Orfeo’s behalf.

Of the two main Shepherds, tenor Gareth Treseder and, especially Francisco Fernandez-Rueda were characterful quasi-narrators, the latter so intensely animated as to make himself a major presence throughout.

Singing high from the scaffolding, countertenor Kangmin Justin Kim made an atmospheric Speranza. In his deux et machina role in the final scene, Furio Zanasi was a noble, fatherly presence as Apollo.

The versatile members of the Monteverdi Choir sang with historical style, freshness and strength. Their full engagement in their roles, individually and collectively, were delightful throughout, even dancing with unselfconscious joy and abandon.

What a riotous array of colors and timbres emanated from the gifted period instrumentalists of the English Baroque Soloists! Along with the nimble strings, the bracing tang and asperity of the sackbuts, cornetti, recorders, liron and chitarrone served up an aural feast throughout.

Overseeing all was Sir John Eliot Gardiner. The antithesis of the stage-center maestro, the English conductor was an almost unobtrusive presence–standing off to the right, at times in the shadows. Yet the veteran conductor was the clear fulcrum of the performance, directing sans baton and shaping phrases and details expressively with his hands. Throughout the unbroken two-hour performance not a single bar sounded routine.

A brilliant, delightful and even revelatory evening. On to Ulisse.

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