Opéra Royal de Versailles 2023-24 Review: L’Orfeo

By Laura Servidei
(Photo: Stefan Brion)

The Renaissance in Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries largely excluded music. As a movement inspired by classical examples, it had no ancient musical forms to revive since no classical music had survived in any form. Claudio Monteverdi is often regarded as the father of the musical Renaissance. Over fifty years, he structured the madrigal form, envisioned new expressiveness for vocal music, and ultimately created a brand new art: opera.

A Wedding in a Hippie Commune

“L’Orfeo,”  which premiered in 1607, is based on one of the most famous stories of classical Greece. It revolutionized the way Europe viewed singing by using music and the sung word to explicitly express emotions. The Opéra Royal de Versailles presents a production by Pauline Bayle, who sets this timeless myth in modern times. The shepherds and nymphs are depicted as a sort of hippie commune, with the demigod Orfeo as their leader. They are all dressed in plain modern clothing, featuring monochromatic flowing garments: cotton drawstring pants for the men and long skirts for the women (costumes by Bernadette Villard).

The opera opens with a prologue in which the allegorical character of Music explains how she can represent all human emotions and tell the stories of kings and gods, capturing the attention of every soul. Marie Théoleyre’s round, full soprano was the perfect embodiment of Music itself. She sang the monologue with captivating ornamentations and a certain aloofness, which was very suited to an allegorical character.

The sets, designed by Emmanuel Clolus, were entirely black and empty—a large black box brightly illuminated in the first act for the preparation of the wedding between Orfeo and Eurydice. Red flowers sprang from the black floor while the chorus joined in the couple’s happiness through song, frequently exchanging embraces in their celebration.

Marc Mauillon portrayed Orfeo with a baritone that was both powerful and light, effortlessly reaching the high notes required for the role. His distinctive, natural emission, free of vibrato and almost “spoken,” suited Monteverdi’s style of “recitar cantando” perfectly. His opening “Rosa del ciel” was particularly effective and remarkable. Eurydice was again played by Théoleyre, whose voice was sweeter in this role, conveying all the love and expectations of the unfortunate bride.

Several shepherds performed little solos, duets, and small ensemble numbers in the first act—Victor Sordo, Arnauld Gluck, Matteo Laconi, Nicolas Certenais, and Pauline Gaillard—all with great style and elegance. The joy of the celebration is interrupted by one of Eurydice’s friends, La Messaggera (the messenger), who brings the dreadful news that Eurydice has been bitten by a snake and is dead. Floriane Hasler’s mezzo-soprano was pleasant and rich; she put particular care into her wailing “Ahi!” which marks her entrance. The sound was powerful, with a good messa di voce and a mournful affect, creating a truly heart-breaking effect.

The Underworld

The wedding party plunges into sorrow, with a wonderful chorus expressing their grief in “Chi ne consola, ahi lassi,” while Orfeo abandons himself to despair. Mauillon’s most emotional cries of desperation became a bit squeezed and perhaps too close to screams. This might simply be a matter of not being accustomed to his particular timbre, as his voice is actually beautiful and pleasant. Mauillon’s interpretation of Orfeo was emotional and poignant, effectively detailing what we now call the stages of grief. In Orfeo’s case, the “negotiation” stage takes over, leading him to decide to travel to the underworld and enchant the infernal spirits with his musical ability to bring his beloved wife back to life.

In the third act, La Speranza, the goddess of Hope, guides Orfeo to the gates of hell. Marianne Beate Kielland portrayed this character with a smooth, beautiful mezzo-soprano, demonstrating great projection and presence. Her high notes were secure and powerful, while her middle-low register was mellow and sweet. She also had a striking stage presence, standing at least six feet tall. La Speranza abandons Orfeo at the gates, where he meets Caronte (Charon), the ferryman of the Underworld who carries the dead to their final destination. In this act and the following one, the stage plunged into almost complete darkness, with dim spotlights on the singers. Charon was surrounded by three mimes completely covered in black, crawling on all fours, representing Cerberus, the mythological three-headed dog guarding the gates of the Underworld.

The powerful bass of Salvo Vitale gave Charon great authority in his confrontation with Orfeo, while the accompaniment of the regal provided a truly otherworldly feeling to his singing. Orfeo pleads with Charon in “Possente spirto,” full of ornamentations, showcasing all his musical abilities to win over the terrifying boatman. Mauillon’s rendition was remarkable.

After managing to enter hell, Orfeo finds an ally in Proserpina, the wife of Plutone, ruler of the underworld. Proserpina was sung again by Kielland, whose mezzo found a seductive tone to convince her husband to let Eurydice return to the world. Plutone, once again interpreted by Vitale with power and style, imposes the condition that Orfeo must not look at his wife until they are back in the world. Overcome by doubt and fear, Orfeo turns around and loses her forever.

In Act five, we see Orfeo on Earth, in the “depression” stage of his grief, with his wife’s wedding dress looming over him. Monteverdi’s resolution to the drama is classically inspired: a Deus ex Machina arrives to resolve almost everything. This is the most conventional part of the opera: the god Apollo, Orfeo’s father, descends to Earth to bring his son to the heavens, where he will find peace. Veteran Furio Zanasi portrayed Apollo with a smooth, beautiful baritone. While all the singers had excellent Italian pronunciation, it is perhaps not surprising that the two native speakers, Vitale and especially Zanasi, stood out in their combination of words and music, perfectly aligning the inflection of the sentences with the music.

A Splendid Orchestra

The orchestra Le Concert des Nations, conducted by Jordi Savall, is one of the foremost ensembles in early music, and their performance lived up to their reputation. Savall delivered a thoughtful, elegant interpretation, full of sunlight and meticulous attention to detail. The continuo was delightful, providing unwavering support to the singers.


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