Music to savor; staging to be ignored
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Music to savor; staging to be ignored
by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Orfeo
by Claudio Monteverdi
February 6
The Moore Theatre


To best enjoy the Early Music Guild presentation of Monteverdi's opera Orfeo, one needed to pretty much ignore the staging, such as it was. To begin with, an updating of an Early Music Guild presentation is more than a little ironic, if not downright oxymoronic. We go to EMG concerts to see/hear early music presented as nearly as possible as it might have been done at the time of composition.

With costumes from the Elvis Presley milieu instead of mythic Greece, the singers were pressed into chorus line routines more appropriate to a high school production than a serious musical occasion. It's too easy to poke fun at this semi-staged, half-hearted staging.

Let's instead focus on the altogether outstanding musical virtues we enjoyed all evening. Credit La Venexiana, a group of singers and instrumentalists from Italy who were imported for the occasion. The spectacular brass fanfare that opens the opera could not have been more effective. The players were stationed in the small "box" seats above the main level on both sides of the theater. The brilliance of the period instruments at full volume set the stage for the aural treats to follow.

The orchestra was positioned on the small stage. Excellent acoustics of the Moore Theatre allowed the special sound of the theorbos and other early instruments to be appreciated. (Surprisingly, the players used mostly locally borrowed instruments.) The serious execution of Monteverdi's music was in stark contrast to the amateurish staging. Conductor Claudio Cavina bore responsibility for both; he staged, conducted, sang countertenor, and even moved furniture.

The singers were no less professional, with the tenor and soprano of Mirko Cristiano Guadagnini and Emanuela Galli particularly stellar as Orfeo and Euridice. As handsome physically as he was vocally, Guadagnini impressed on all accounts and made one happy to forget the Elvis, rock-idol costumes. The remaining soloists and the small chorus were uniformly quite good, with the Caronte of bass Salvo Vitale a standout. None of the singers had that unfortunate body-less sound that used to be so popular in early music circles, as exemplified by the often-recorded soprano Emma Kirkby.

Seeing this opera requires a special mindset. The story is super-simple and emotionally much less detailed than in Gluck's setting. And there is almost no action. Thus, the focus must be on the music and the singing. The first half was especially static and would have been boring without the interest and excellence of the period techniques and instrumental sounds. Vocal trills became repeated staccatos on a single note instead of the later warble between two notes. Vibrato was sometimes replaced by straight tone singing and playing. Overall, Monteverdi's genius kept things alive and even compelling. After intermission, the opera became more dramatic, leaving the audience exhilarated and enthusiastic in its response.

Opportunities to hear Monteverdi's works are rare and especially welcome. But next month brings yet another chance, when Pacific Operaworks presents his opera Return of Ulysses at The Moore Theatre on March 11, 13, 14, 20, and 21 at 7:30 p.m. This production employs some members of Seattle Baroque Orchestra as well as the Handspring Puppet Company from Capetown, South Africa. Renowned director William Kentridge, who will be directing at the Metropolitan Opera in 2010, will direct the production, all musically directed by three-time Grammy nominated Monteverdi specialist Stephen Stubbs. Check out www.PacificOperaWorks.org for more information, an exciting list of future artists, and tickets.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.