When producing a new Monteverdi “L’Orfeo” Premiering at Opera Santa Fe on July 29th, something about it might sound a little odd.
Sure, there will be the usual Orfeo, in this case the tenor Rolando Villazon, and a familiar catwalk scene at the conductor Harry Beckett. If the staging by Yuval Sharon, one of the most creative opera directors working today, sparks an idea or two — well, that’s only to be expected now.
No, what might surprise people more is the sound coming out of the orchestra pit. This will not be Monteverdi as we have heard it; There would be no old instrument in sight, neither harpsichord nor sack but, Thorbo nor cornet. It would be, rather, Monteverdi as newly staged by Nico Muhli and brought directly into the contemporary.
“It’s a piece of music that I’ve always loved, and I love Monteverdi,” said Muhly, a composer whose operas include “Marni” and “Two Boys.” For him, being accepted into the Santa Fe commission “sounded like a really easy ‘yeah’.”
The Santa Fe production, titled Orfeo, is not intended as a major retaliation against the vintage instrumental movement that has claimed early music as its own for decades. Beckett is, after all, the musical director of the English concert, which was once at the forefront of that movement and remains one of its preeminent ensembles. And Muhly was offered the assignment because his love of Byrd and Tallis and the like is not only acknowledged, but audibly present in much of his own music.
What “Orfeo” speaks for Santa Fe, however, are artistic opportunities beginning to open up as the first generation of pioneers of period instruments pass from the scene, the early music movement faces an uncertain future, and all the old debates about how to perform works seem archaic.
Anyway, doing “Orfeo” this way Nicholas HarnoncourtAnd John Eliot Gardiner And Jordi Savall It would be impossible in Santa Fe. The company has a resident orchestra that uses modern instruments, and even if vintage instruments can be brought out to the desert for the summer, Beckett said, “I mean we’d probably have, like, five Thorbos and three guitars and all these guitars, which in an open-air theater isn’t really practical.”
The typical repertory companies, too, are unable to present the work as it has come to be heard—not only a shame, but also damaging to our collective understanding of opera itself.
Of Orfeo, Sharon said, “It is not appropriate to call it the first opera, because we know that it was not the first opera.” “Opera was not a genre at this point, when this piece was created. But in many respects, I think it makes perfect sense to call it the first opera, because it sets the standard for what we look to opera to create for us.”
Muhly explained that this format is intended to make the work more practical to perform in ordinary homes, outside of Santa Fe. He said, “I don’t do anything crazy.” “It’s just about it not being this impractical thing.”
Composers have a long time He was interested in reshaping “Orfeo” for contemporary ears; In its treatment of the Orpheus myth, it is, in essence, an opera about the power of music.
The work premiered in 1607, with a libretto by Alessandro Striggio. But according to musicologist Nigel Fortune, it was largely forgotten after Monteverdi’s death, in 1643, Until the end of the nineteenth century. Then, Vincent D’Indy, Karl Orff, Ottorino Respighi, W Bruno Maderna Everyone tried their hand at re-anatomy. For the Maggio Musicale in Florence in 1984, Luciano Berio convened a group of young composers – among them Betty Olivero and Luca Francesconi – to rewrite “Orfeo” using electronic tapes and even a rock band. By then, the period instrument revolution was in full flow; When Paul Hindemith presented a scientific paper “Attempt to rebuild the premiere” In Vienna in 1954, Harnoncourt and other members of the recently formed Konsentus Musicus Wien played in the ensemble.
For Beckett, none of these or other versions were suitable for use in Santa Fe; They were involved in the wounds, or they were out of their own time. But since Santa Fe has a tradition of premiering every year, he explained that a new production seemed the perfect opportunity to commission “a young, contemporary composer to say what this century has to say about this music.”
Mohly admires Orfeo. He said, “There are a lot of moments of goofiness, where what you get in terms of plot and what you get in terms of emotional content comes from very little harmonic movement, like a strange apartment,” he said. “Also, there’s a very traditional wordboard. You go up to heaven, you go up to the scales. It’s a great mix of trickery and obvious, theatrical stuff.”
One of the reasons so many composers felt they could try their hand at orchestrating or adapting “Orfeo” was that Monteverdi let them have the chance. Even the most scholarly and conscientious performer of “Orfeo” must make choices about how to play it, because scores published in the early seventeenth century omit important details, especially in the continuing parts that make up much of the work.
“It’s all sketchy, because there wasn’t a global music scene,” Beckett said. “Composers didn’t have to write information in the sheet music, apart from the vocal line and bass line and maybe a little harmony here or there, because there was an understanding and style that was part of being a musician in those days.”
Beckett added, “When I do it with my English concert players, we read the notes, but we’re actually reading the speech—the essence of it is finding the rhetorical gesture.”
Many instrumentalists who have performed or recorded “Orfeo” have chosen to create their own editions; Listen to some historically-studied recordings of the work, Muhly noted, and you can hear the differences more noticeably than in period retellings of, say, Beethoven’s symphonies, sometimes on such fundamental matters as rhythms.
So there is no one, real “Orfeo” to whom anyone can be faithful, and that invites creativity. For Sharon, his production could easily fall under his interest in how to recreate operas from the past today. It’s an urgency – along with his acclaimed work with the Detroit Opera and Industry, the company he founded in Los Angeles – that has seen him orchestrate parts of “Götterdämmerung” as chauffeur and prompted him to present the four acts of “La Bohème” in reverse.
“We’re all guessing what it must have been like doing this piece,” Sharon said of Monteverdi. “We have to interpret it; we have to decide. What instruments are going to play this? What is the proper performance style for that? There is no such thing, there are just human beings who bring it to life at that very moment, and they need to take that blueprint that Monteverdi and Striggio left us and interpret it in our own way, for our own time. So I think that makes it forever an opportunity for constant re-imagining.”
With that, Mahli asked for some ground rules, and Beckett laid down some ground rules. “We agreed it would be Monteverdi’s Orfeo”, said Beckett, and it was stipulated that the vocal lines and bass would remain unchanged from the primary source. Bicket wrote a vocal score, filling in the harmonies left out by Monteverdi, indicating where chords might be reworked or changed in other ways.
Otherwise, Mahli was left to translate the material into his own synthetic language, to which he had come in dialogue with ancient music and even early instruments; Among his published scores is a “Berceuse with seven different shapes” for theorbo solo.
“I think the music of the past figures very prominently in my original music,” he said, “I stepped into this with a form of irreverent reverence.”
This is not to say that the process was easy. Mahly said that while in some ways it was easier than writing other operas of his own, in others it was more difficult, requiring him to innovate and defer at the same time. He adapted the continuo part mostly to a small ensemble of alto flute, English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet, and ukulele, and voiced the bass in octaves much higher and lower than tradition would suggest. Some of the more complex problems involved replicating the way Monteverdi shrinks and expands his format, making the underworld distinct, but not a “cartoonish villain”.
But what Mahli argues, and admits he’s “a little worried about,” is the perception that “a new take or interpretation of something somehow erases, or contradicts, the previous interpretation.” His version of “Orfeo” is not meant to replace those that came before it, much less to make early music take on redundant material. far from it.
“You know what would be cool, what would literally be cool?” local said. “Let’s just say somebody saw this thing and was like, ‘Wow, I’m totally enamored with this piece,’ goes back and gets any of the period records, and it’s gateway drug that way. Likewise, if someone hears it and says, ‘I hated it so much, I really want to hear the original again,’ and then they go to the original again, that’s fine too. I think that’s fine.”
The more Monteverdi, in the eyes of Mohly and his collaborators, the better.
“It’s not really about me; it’s about having a great night at the theatre,” said a local. “I want the music to serve the drama. And that’s always how it should be.”