Boston Early Music Festival offers a brilliant and magical “Orfeo”
With an enchanting production that was brilliantly choreographed down to the smallest gesture, the Boston Early Music Festival presented its latest successful semi-staged opera, Monteverdi’s Orfeo, Saturday evening at Jordan Hall.
Featuring a solid core of versatile singers, top-flight horn and string playing, and a concept that took every advantage of the small stage to enhance the narrative, Orfeo was yet another magical revival by BEMF’s opera team. Under music directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, and directed by Gilbert Blin and choreographer Melinda Sullivan, the artistic team once again set a high standard for the difficult task of bringing opera to life with the sparest of acting.
The story of Orfeo and Euridice is a familiar one: Orfeo, an enchanter with the lyre, loses his love Euridice and vows to go to Hades to retrieve her. He does, successfully beguiling the underworld gods as he does so, and can take her back with the proviso that he doesn’t turn to look at her on the return to earth. He does, and she’s gone forever.
Each telling of Ovid’s myth has different emphasis, and the libretto—nobly crafted by Alessandro Striggio—provides a happy ending (in some version Orfeo is torn to bits for his impudence) while emphasizing dualities: happiness and sadness, life and death, heaven and earth.
An ambitious cadre of nine singers divided up the roles, and came together to form a chorus when needed. Everyone sang with distinction, embracing the vibrato-less early style.
Aaron Sheehan sang nobly in the title role as the demi-god with the musical ability to charm rocks, trees and demons of the underworld. Sheehan’s long ornamented aria at the gates of hell, culminating dramatically in Rendetemi’l mio ben (“Give me back what is mine”), was perhaps the solo highlight, but the response by bass Douglas Williams as Charonte—hell’s gatekeeper—singing with profound clarity in the lowest registers, was equally compelling.
Soprano Mireille Asselin brought lyric intensity to several roles, notably as the archetype La Musica in the prologue and as the doomed Euridice. Soprano Shannon Mercer, notable as Silvia, the Messenger, acted and sang skillfully. Lyric tenor Jason McStoots also stood out in multiple castings.
A small ensemble of early strings was headed by concertmaster Robert Mealy, and they were joined by the early brass specialists Concerto Palatino. Stubbs conducted the instrumentalists and singers.
Blin’s concept made it all come alive. Every glance had meaning, and subtle movements that incorporated the musicians into the playing created a reality out of the imaginary world onstage.
Dancer Carlos Fittante added greatly to the storytelling with gestural elegance. The only small flaw in the concept was the unrolling of scrolled up texts, intended to be comedic or for emphasis, but which was sometimes unreadable and often a distraction. Apart from this truly minor flaw, this production of Orfeo was a complete delight.
Orfeo will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday. bemf.org. 617-585-1260.
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