Teatro Dante Alighieri, Ravenna 2021 Review: L’Orfeo

Dantone & Pizzi Combine To Create A Bold Interpretation

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: Zani-Casadio)

In the space of three days, Ravenna’s Teatro Tradizione Dante Alighieri performed two operas, both of which involved trips into the afterlife. The first, “Il Viaggio di G.Mastorna” was a contemporary opera by Matteo D’Amico in which the hero Mastorna is killed in an airplane crash and condemned to journey through a modern-day purgatory in search of peace. The second took us back took to opera’s very beginnings with a production of Monteverdi’s “L’Orfeo,” in which the hero enters Hades to rescue his wife Euridice from death’s clutches. Whether this was a deliberate programming decision or a fortuitous coincidence, it proved to be a very interesting pairing.

Over four hundred years separate the two works, many more if we consider the source material for “L’Orfeo,” and presents us with two very different pictures of the afterlife, which reflect our changing view to what lies in store for us after we die. Whereas in “L’Orfeo” Hades is an external objective reality, one in which Orfeo has to engage with in order to rescue Euridice, in “Il Viaggio di G.Mastorna” the afterlife is a personal representation, specific to Mastorna himself, inhabited by images, people and events from his life. In the case of “L’Orfeo” it was an easy task to view the performance as an outsider, watching a fiction unfold, whilst in “Il Viaggio di G.Mastorna,” one was quickly pulled into the depths of Mastorna’s disorientation, his dreamlike experiences resonating vividly with our own fears and speculations of what happens when we cross the divide.

That “L’Orfeo” is a visible fiction does not, of course, prevent us from identifying with Orfeo’s joy and deep sadness. The context, however, beyond its colorful cast of characters has little, if anything, to say about life after death, except that there is no way back. This fact, however, did not detract from what was a very enjoyable production.

A Conclusion Without Resolution

The stage direction was encharged to Pier Luigi Pizzi, who also took responsibility for scenography and costume design. His first decision, taken alongside Ottavio Dantone, the musical director, was to decide on which of the librettist Alessandro Striggio’s two endings should be employed. In the first Orfeo resolves to reject all other women, at which point the Bacchanites arrive on stage and kill him. The second sees the god Apollo descend from the clouds and reunite Orfeo with Euridice in the stars. Pizzi and Dantone opted for neither, but decided to end the opera without resolution, leaving Orfeo alone “enclosed in his own solitude, with all his doubts and torments,” an ending Pizzi believes to be in closer accordance with today’s sensitivities, in which audiences are more accustomed to leaving theaters without having all the loose ends neatly settled.

A Partially Successful Staging

Pizzi also made a second significant decision, in which he moved the orchestra onto the stage, the effects of which were not particularly successful. Not only did this give the impression of a semi-staged performance, but it also undermined the staging in Acts one and two, which became overly cluttered with soloists, chorus, orchestra, and scenery, all competing for space. Moreover, it worked against the classical aesthetic which Pizzi was attempting to establish with his scenic classical façade and costumes which generally reflected classical simplicity. Maybe the reason for this decision was so the orchestra pit could be used as the entrance to the Underworld from which the Infernal Spirits, Plutone and Caronte emerged, and into which Orfeo descended. Visually, these acts were excellent: the stage was darkened whilst the ceiling of the auditorium was bathed in a soft light, grey mist floated out of the orchestra pit, from which the dark images of the Infernal Spirits were silhouetted, while Orfeo stood on a platform which ran along the front.

By using the pit as part of the performing area it brought the drama closer to the audience, which not only gave the staging more intimacy, but was also successful in highlighting Orfeo’s suffering in the final act as he was forced to lament his loss alone, adrift from the main stage.

Dantone Seeks To Replicate The Emotional Affects of The Original Performance

If the staging was not totally successful, that was not the case with the musical side of the performance under the direction of Ottavio Dantone, which was excellent throughout. He oversaw a performance that sought to promote affects, rather than the lyricism of the work. As he stated in his program notes “What matters is to recover and maintain a language capable of transmitting the same identical affects that were experienced at the time, those we call feelings,” which consisted in “using accents, phrasing, voices, and instruments capable of recreating the same emotional state that the spectators felt 400 years ago.” Certainly, this was an ambitious aim, one requiring a finely honed judgment as to how a listener will interpret the nuances of a musical response to a text. Whether or not Dantone realized his aim is impossible to determine, however, the resulting performance certainly proved to be one in which the emotions were strongly presented, although the lyricism of the work was never unduly compromised.

Giovanni Sala’s Strong Emotional Portrayal

Dantone’s approach was most noticeable in the character of Orfeo played by the tenor Giovanni Sala, who produced an ambitious interpretation in which he allowed his emotions to flow freely. His heartfelt joy was expressed with carefree abandon, whilst his desolation at Euridice’s death was etched into the fabric of his singing, in which his use of emotional accents and the attention he gave to the meaning of the text impressed. His ornamentation of the vocal line was beautifully rendered, but always subsumed within his emotional state, and never allowed to dominate his presentation. His clear-toned voice also gave his singing an elegant and refined sheen which was particularly suitable for the role, although this was occasionally compromised by his enthusiasm to emote. Sala was also responsible for bringing the opera to its unresolved conclusion, which he did so successfully with an expert portrayal of Orfeo’s devastation at having lost Euridice a second time, and a life now destined for solitude.

Strong Performances In Supporting Roles

The character of Orfeo dominates the opera. All the other characters are very much subsidiaries, although fundamental to the drama, and one of the major strengths of this production was the quality of the singers in these smaller roles.

Soprano Vittoria Magnarello made a very good impression as La Musica, displaying a voice with a bright, engaging timbre and a natural musical expressivity. Her costume, however, did her no favors whatsoever, and jarred horribly with the staging.

The three shepherds were all well parted. The tenor Massimo Altieri as Pastore I produced a particularly strong performance, in which his neatly crafted phrasing and vocal flexibility caught the attention. Pastore II and Pastore III were played by tenor Luca Cervoni and countertenor Enrico Torre respectively, both of whom produced strong performances.

Soprano Chiara Nicastro was parted in the small role of La Ninfa but was still able to make a pleasing impression, in which she managed to give shape to her character and display ability in crafting delicately woven phrases.

Mezzo-soprano Daniela Pini produced a sympathetic reading of the goddess Proserpina, in which her richly colored pallet proved particularly suitable for portraying the goddess of the Underworld. She was equally convincing in the tender love scene with her husband Plutone, in which she coated her voice with a seductive charm.

Plutone was played by the imposing figure of Federico Sacchi, whose authoritative bass and militaristic costume certainly made him look and sound the part. He possesses a voice with an alluring timbre with a deep resonance, which not only made him appear fearsome when confronting Orfeo, but also comforting and loving when supporting Proserpina.

Contralto Margherita Maria Sala was excellent in the role of Speranza. Singing with apparent ease, she produced a detailed, well-articulated and expressive performance, which showed off the colors of her voice and her agility in crafting the vocal line.

The Messenger was played by soprano Alice Grasso. She produced a clearly articulated reading which showed off her bright upper register and was satisfactorily unsettled by the news she carried.

Soprano Eleonora Pace, in the role of Euridice, possesses a pleasing voice with a bright upper register. However, both her vocal and physical characterizations were not sufficiently developed to capture the attention.

Caronte, played by bass Mirco Palazzi, made an excellent entrance, rising from out of the orchestra pit, shrouded in mist, his rumbling bass rising above the orchestra. It was a powerful image, one which Palazzi built upon with a formidable performance in which his well-supported voice, nuanced and expressive phrasing impressed.

The Coro Cremona Antiqua under the guidance of maestro del coro Antonio Greco produced a well sung, vibrant performance in which they successfully added to the emotional backdrop of the drama playing the parts of the Infernal Spirits, Nymphs, and Shepherds.

Dantone elicited a sensitive and dramatically strong reading from the Accademia Bizantina ensemble, which successfully promoted the drama with its carefully developed textural and rhythmic variations. The balance, however, was occasionally disrupted by having singers, actors, and dancers blocking parts of the orchestra, which had already been divided into two to allow for the movement of the cast.

Overall, this was an entertaining, well-presented, and interesting production. Having Orfeo walk off alone in the final scene was an excellent idea and worked well. Even at 91 years of age Pizzi’s dramatic instincts remain sharp; the 21st-century mindset is too cynical to sympathize with an Orfeo and Euridice reunited in the stars.




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