By Claudio Monteverdi
No, it’s not the first opera — or fusing of music and drama — to have been performed in Europe, as the advertising in the Queensland Music Festival brochure states so baldly. That honour should probably go to Jacopo Peri’s Dafne, privately performed in Florence for the first time in 1597, and his Eurydice, performed three years later in 1600. But who has ever heard of those “operas” – or of Peri for that matter? Or the group of Italian musicians in the last quarter of the sixteenth century calling themselves the Camerata who sought to create this new art form and who paved the way for Monteverdi’s glorious expression of that fusion of music and poetry. As Paul Grabowsky says, much less dogmatically, in the program for Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, “opera emerged pretty much fully formed in Mantua in 1607” with the first production of this amazing version of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. And most people, except the most pedantic of opera lovers, agree that Monteverdi’s is the first opera masterpiece. So, let’s celebrate this 400-year anniversary production with all due praise and respect.
This joint production by the Queensland Music Festival and the Queensland Conservatorium is a bold venture, particularly in the Masonic Temple in Brisbane, which resembles more the type of playing space or court setting in which many of the newly fashionable music dramas might have been performed in the seventeenth century than the proscenium stage we normally associate with opera nowadays. In the main, the production used the space with imagination and occasionally with real excitement when the Arcadian hippies leapt up the aisles into the audience, or the infernal spirits posed against the top side walls with torches under their chins just as we all used to do as children, making deathly skull-like dark hollows and grimaces on our faces. With an enormous golden lyre as a portal through which the main singers could pass (and, later, tangle with laser beams as they did so), the orchestra at the inner end, and the audience ranged on tiers along each side, the full length and breadth of the Temple became the stage on which the drama was played and in which the audience became intimate partners. At times the air became uncomfortably choked with dry ice which the Temple didn’t cope with very well, probably because it is a space more used to the arcane mysteries of the handshake and the apron than to the whiz-bang effects of the modern stage, so that the perpetual haze and gloom, not helped by some poor, over-elaborate lighting choices, were distracting and annoying.
Unfortunately, for the whole run of three nights Greg Massingham as Orpheus was suffering from laryngitis and was only able to act and lip-synch — both of which he did brilliantly. His part was sung by Trevor Pichanick, who also sang the parts of the second shepherd and Eco. Strangely enough this worked rather elegantly, with Pichanick standing at a lectern to one side of the orchestra while he sang as Orpheus and then joining in the fray for his other roles. His Orpheus, one could believe, was capable with his lute of making “trees and the mountaintops that freeze” as his lovely lyric tenor voice imbued the figure on stage making all the mistakes with a passionate gravitas (are the two incompatible?). The distance between voice and actor, in a quite post-modern way, worked to sustain rather than belittle the legend, as the fatal discordance between the supernatural power of the voice and the urgings of the physical body were thrown into high relief, seen and heard most poignantly in the scene when the Messenger arrives with the news of the death of Eurydice, and then in Orpheus’s importuning of Charon to ferry him across the Styx. Both were highlights in this unexpectedly successful way of recouping what might have been a significant blow to the production.
The orchestra strings, percussion, and interestingly enough both harpsichord and organ, were supported by period instruments like the theorbo (like a long-necked lute), cornetto and sackbut, and the lovely little organ-like regal. It was altogether a big, beautiful sound, and the subtle melodic lines were ably interwoven with the drama being enacted. Margaret Schindler as La Musica, posing demurely within the lyre-portal and dressed in a ridiculously extravagant, flower-bedecked eighteenth-century-style gown and wig worthy of Peter Greenaway, sang the Prologue magnificently, flirting with the audience (someone muttered that it was death by a thousand gerberas) and looking as if she had stepped out of a Grand Guignol production with her white face as she threw a length of white tulle passionately to the floor. Monique Latemore as La Speranza was as grandly attired and bewigged in eighteenth-century fashion, but looked more Versailles than Grand Guignol, and sang more decorously accordingly.
It would be difficult — and carping — to fault the musical aspects of this production. With minor exceptions, the singing was bold and glorious. Most of the chorus are still students, and there were enough of them to produce a big, wonderful sound. The principals were, without exception, strong and completely at one with their roles. I particularly liked Samuel Sakker as the first shepherd and Apollo. His voice promises much, and he has a formidable stage presence. My main criticism is of the design of the production, which, if the director’s notes in the program are anything to go by, was meant to highlight the timeless aspects of the “journey to self-knowledge.” Op-shop tat for the nymphs and shepherds of Arcadia with dreadlocks and bikinis was merely distracting, although irresistibly reminiscent of where the wild things are. Eurydice’s costume with the lower half like a teddy-bear suit topped by a sequinned corselette with nipples and navel outlined, matched by Orpheus’s similarly glittering and outlined pecs and six-pack, was all a little odd, but when it came to Charon’s golden fat suit and the white decontamination suits of the “post-apocalyptic roadies” (??) and the absurdity of the design aesthetic (if I can dignify the mishmash in that way) just got in the way of appreciation. So much so that when Pluto and Proserpine appeared on the balcony in white tulle, I wondered what other design absurdities could possibly top that. Apollo at the close in a long, silky blonde wig was a restrained delight after the previous incongruities.
The Brisbane Music Festival and the Con are to be congratulated on giving Brisbane L’Orfeo. It was only one of many highlights of the Festival, but it is one which illustrates the very strong musical tradition and home-grown talent available here.
Directed by Caroline Stacey. Musical direction by Marshall McGuire.
Playing: Mon 23, Wed 25, Fri 27 July 2007, 7.30pm.
Duration: 2hrs (including interval).