Q & A: Composer Nico Muhly on Creating a New Orchestration on Monteverdi’s ‘Orfeo’ for Santa Fe Opera

By David Salazar
(Photo credit: Heidi Solander)

Back on July 29, Santa Fe Opera premiered a new production of Monteverdi’s seminal “Orfeo,” directed by Yuval Sharon. And while that in and of itself makes for a compelling and unique story, adding a unique layer to the experience was the fact that this production also features a new orchestration of the work by “the father of opera.”

Charged with that task was composer Nico Muhly, who previously composed such operas as “Marnie” and “Two Boys.” OperaWire spoke to Muhly about the experience of taking on Monteverdi’s famed work as well as the experience of working alongside conductor Harry Bicket on the project.

OperaWire: When were you approached for this project of orchestrating Monteverdi’s opera and how did it feel to have to take on this specific task?

Nico Muhly: So I was approached maybe two years ago, maybe three years ago, time stopped in the pandemic. So it could have been at really at any point between 2020 and now. It was of course an honor to have been asked to do this because it’s, you know, the father of opera. It’s a very early opera as part of the genre and it felt like I was being entrusted with something very precious but also quite robust.

So I felt happy and it was definitely an honor to be asked to try to make someone else’s music shine in a new context. It is a big task.

OW: What challenges did you encounter when taking on this score?

NM: I mean everything about it was challenging. The first thing that anyone asked is “What are you going to do about all this recitative?” Almost all of which would have historically not been conducted and played by few enough people that you could just sort of feel it out with the singer. But with an orchestra, you can’t do that because it’s just such a big mechanism and the conductor has to show all the internal beats. Monteverdi’s score is not written in a way that shows those things. There is a lot of performance practice that goes into realizing what he wrote. So you can’t just do what it says. That was a challenge.

I also was not allowed to use a different vocal score because the singers had been learning it off of this one edition. So you know long bars with a million things happening in them had to remain long bars. What would be probably easier would be to cut them up and maybe to write out a little bit more of the rubato that is generally used in the recitative sections.

And then the other question has to do with what do you do about distinguishing the smaller, more intimate sounds of the sort of continuo sections with the larger, more explicitly orchestral sections, which Monteverdi was quite clear about and his instructions for which instruments to use were also relatively clear.

So what I decided to do was have a little internal ensemble of cor anglais, harp, alto flute, clarinet, and bass clarinet that functioned as a little kind of internal ensemble that did most of the heavy lifting for the recitative. And that was great that having kind of unlocked that helped me. And the reason for those specific instruments is that I wanted us always to be aware of the underworld. So it’s all stranger woodwinds. It’s like you know the sound of the alto flute is really specific.

OW: If someone familiar with the original score were to listen to this version, what are some differences that might jump out at them?

NM: I didn’t really change the harmonies but sometimes I would flip them a little bit or make the model I was using was sort of Stravinsky’s “Pulchinello” where all that music is in there and then there’s occasionally one little added ninth or a little little jolt of color from within. But there were no changes to any other thing.

OW: What is your relationship to Monteverdi’s music prior to taking on this project? What are some things that you learned to appreciate after taking on this project?

NM: My relationship to Monteverdi’s music prior to taking this project… I just knew it really well and you know I studied the madrigals and listened to them for pleasure a great deal. As a chorister, I loved singing Monteverdi and there are a bunch of little signature moves that he makes. But for me, I learned to appreciate just the unbelievable amount of harmonic sophistication juxtaposed with incredible simplicity. I mean there are these moments that are just so shocking in this “Orfeo” to such an extent that I kept on joking when I was orchestrating it because some of the harmonic moves were so wild that I was scared that people would think that I had done them and that it wasn’t him.

And in a lot of ways you know interestingly he’s much more harmonically adventurous than I am just because my musical kind of pedigree comes from these sort of pivoting chords that always have you know common tones and where you know sometimes you’ll just have a completely space alien chord in Monteverdi. The way that he uses harmony to foreshadow and to accent and sometimes ignore what’s being said is just really magical. And I just came out of it with an enormous amount of respect.

OW: What was it like working with a baroque master like Harry Bicket on this project?

NM: Working with Harry Bickett was amazing because he’s the person you would want to do a project like this with. And to a certain extent you know because he lives inside this music. It was really great to feel that I had a kind of interpretive ally and I learned a lot from him. Just in our interactions about “I see like this cadence actually should work like this and this cadence should work like that” and ways in which the flexibility of this music actually is very individual. When I started the project, I listened to a bunch of different recordings and they were so different. And then I was looking at live recordings and those are so different from the studio recordings in a lot of ways. The opera already contains these interpretive possibilities and so my job was just to kind of add to that. But yes, I learned an enormous amount from Harry.


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