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James Reel
Fanfare, September 2011

This La Scala production of what the booklet notes rightly call “the first great opera” seems in most respects an attempt to evoke the work’s 1607 premiere, in terms of music and staging. According to Tim Carter’s fine notes, L’Orfeo was apparently meant to be performed by a small cast of singers, doubling roles and participating in the choral numbers. The pit orchestra, although it featured cornets, trombones, other wind instruments, and a large continuo contingent, employed a limited string ensemble, and so it goes here. Of course, we can’t know what the original staging was really like, but even in this department La Scala is nodding toward the work’s origins, with the singers dressed in costumes of Monteverdi’s time (rather than the garb of ancient Greece), and stage director (and set and lighting director) Robert Wilson creating a ceremonial, even static atmosphere. Frankly, this looks exactly like a typical Wilson production rather than some evocation of the early 17th-century stage. Wilson, here and in the past, has been more interested in tableaux and the purity of motion than in character- or plot-motivated action. This works reasonably well initially, but the second half of L’Orfeo devolves into face-the-audience, stand-and-deliver tedium, each character in physical isolation from the others. There may be some psychological justification for this, but the concept is far more effective in the abstract than in practice. One other detail that may strike contemporary viewers as odd: With the heavy, pale greasepaint on their faces, Orfeo and his shepherd friends from a distance all look distractingly like the android Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Musically, though, this production can hardly be faulted. Start with the opening Toccata; conductor Rinaldo Alessandrini draws a real snarl from the orchestra, making the music sound primitive and ritualistic, more ancient Greek than Italian Baroque. Later, his ritornelli can be quite fast, but they’re treated as transitions between vocal segments; nobody is trying to dance to them. (There is one dancer on stage, strutting about in feathers and a Venetian bird mask, but his purpose beyond linking to the art and culture of Monteverdi’s time is inscrutable.)

German baritone Georg Nigl takes the title role, with only a few ardent outbursts interrupting his sweet, disconsolate, and quite lovely singing. He is well partnered by Roberta Invernizzi and Sara Mingardo in their multiple roles, and by the secondary vocalists. The singing is, for the most part, period-appropriate but never dry.

The DTS-HD 5.1 audio track brings clarity, tonal beauty, and precise imaging to the orchestra, and serves the singers well, too, although with little sense of depth. Video director Emanuele Garofalo does a good job of offering enough well-chosen shots to overcome stage director Wilson’s stasis without negating Wilson’s intentions. The Blu-ray picture quality is fine, maintaining clarity in a production that, in terms of color, is intentionally drab. Note that the disc’s total time includes seven minutes of curtain calls and end credits; there’s also a four-minute illustrated synopsis, but aside from cast information, no other extra features.




Daniel Coombs
Audiophile Audition, May 2011

There are many reasons to see and to own this terrific new Blu-ray performance with the Tetro alla Scala from a 2009 performance. For early music enthusiasts and especially purists the performance is excellent. The Teatro orchestra in this case, with the Concerto Italiano under Rinaldo Alessandrini uses both authentic instruments as well as the separated continuo part. It both looks very interesting, thanks to some nice close up shots, as well as sounding great. The vocal performances are terrific as well! Georg Nigl as Orfeo brings a strong but appropriately non-inflected clarity to his voice and some true strength tinged with hopelessness to his role. He is certainly bolstered by similar strong performances including Sara Mingardo in the dual role of the messenger and Speranze and particularly Giovanni Battista Parodi in the imposing, somewhat scary role of Pluto, guardian of Hades. The orchestra’s playing is crisp and alternately buoyant and weighty at requisite times. This is a tight and attractive performance all the way around.

However, the other reason to own this is the absolute visual delights to be found in Robert Wilson’s staging. The actors are all wearing facial makeup that is intended to look quite like ancient Greek masques; right down to articulated cheek bones and high eyebrows. The effect is almost that of watching puppets as they move smoothly and look stunning, frequently monochromatic, but nearly artificial. The stage design itself, though, is “minimalist stunning”. Based on a painting by Titian, “Venus and Cupid with an Organist” (1548), the set design is entirely representative of the scene in the Titian (a contemporary of Monteverdi’s) painting viewed from the organist’s window, right down to the stag and cypress trees in forced perspective. The lighting in this production compliments the choice of colors and—along with the strange gravity-defiant lyre—makes for a visually attractive largely monochromatic pleasure that strong sunlight and sudden dark intrude on at key moments. The dancer, a half-man, half-bird is an odd but physically catching specimen that also intrudes in an almost Dada-like way.

I have been a fan of Robert Wilson’s work since Einstein on the Beach. Everything about this production and this well-engineered Blu-ray disc is worth having.



Kevin Filipski
The Flip Side, April 2011

despite the willfully (and woefully) minimalist 2009 La Scala staging by Robert Wilson, Monteverdi’s first opera, L’Orfeo (Opus Arte), remains a surging and powerful experience, thanks to Rinaldo Alessandrini’s sensitive conducting and strong performances by singers Georg Nigl, Roberta Invernizzi and Sara Mingardo;



Lawrence Devoe
Blu-rayDefinition.com, April 2011

The Film

Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, a retelling of the mythic story of Orpheus and Eurydice, premiered in Mantua in 1607. This 2009 La Scala performance attempts to return us to the premiere in terms of instrumentation, performing style, and setting. Unlike its many operatic successors, L’Orfeo features deliberate stage movements, period rather than mythologic costumes, and very spare orchestration. As there are no living witnesses to this opera’s original performances, we can only speculate how true to Monteverdi’s concept this production is. Having said that, viewers are blessed with a gorgeous production in every respect: singing, orchestral support, sound, and videography. Georg Nigl (Orfeo) is a German baritone and early music specialist who literally pours his heart out for the two hours of this edition. He is ably supported by Italian soprano Roberta Invernizzi (Euridice, Eco and La Musica) and mezzo-soprano Sara Mingardo (Sylvia and Speranza). The supporting roles are generally excellent as well. Rinaldo Alessandrini capably leads the much reduced forces of the Teatro alla Scala orchestra playing on period instruments. The amazing aspect of this production is the directorial work of Robert Wilson, generally regarded as an avant-garde creature of the theater, who, in his many incarnations, has done a fair bit of work for the operatic stage. While the staging uses contemporary minimalism, this actually works quite well and draws our attention appropriately to the singers and other stage performers. The end result is a very moving music theater piece and helps us to understand why L’Orfeo is considered the very first great opera.

Video Quality

As the stage action is often static and very stylized, this places greater pressure on the videographers to use camera work to create a sense of momentum. This is most ably done with discrete mix of cutaways, panoramas and close ups. There is never a sense of longueur, often a potential risk with operas of the early baroque period where there is little stage action. The costumes appear to be quasi-Elizabethan, appropriate to the period of the work’s composition. Lighting for dramatic emphasis is effective, particularly in the scene set in Hades where Orpheus goes to bring Eurydice back from the dead.

Audio Quality

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is warm and well spread across the front speakers. Because of the small size of the orchestra, instrumental lines are unusually clear. The singing is beyond reproach and the voices are well captured by the sound engineers. Surround effects are limited to ambience and the audience is amazingly quiet.

Supplemental Materials

Additional materials consist of cast photos and an illustrated synopsis of the action. While many of today’s operatic BDs are short on extras, this is an instance where I would have really enjoyed director Wilson’s notions on this production as well conversations with the cast.

The Definitive Word

Overall

There are no competing Blu-ray discs of L’Orfeo and this one raises the bar pretty high in all of the usual production values: sight, sound, and staging. While I had planned to watch this video in segments, once started, I could not take my eyes and ears away for a single moment. Early opera may not be every one’s cup of tea but, rest assured, this disc would be a great starting point for the uninitiated. You get a great story, told in timeless music, with fabulous singers and musicians. Robert Wilson’s direction gets everything right and two hours elapse in the blink of an eye. There is not a weak link in the cast and the lead, Georg Nigl is just plain fabulous. Judging from the response of the audience, they also agreed with these opinions. So do a little time traveling, go back 400 years and see what the fuss was all about.




Jeffrey Kauffman
Blu-ray.com, March 2011

The myth of Orpheus has long proven attractive to a wide range of creative artists in virtually every pursuit imaginable, from painting to sculpture to film to (of course) music. This ancient character whose facility with music and verse enabled him to charm everything from humans to rocks with his melodic endeavors might seem to be more peculiarly apt for musical adaptations, and of course there have been many through the generations. But the legend of Orpheus has always had a wider ranging pull on artistic types, perhaps because of its inherent melancholy (what artist worth his salt doesn’t want to think of him or herself as a tortured artist, after all?), but perhaps more because of its fascinating dialectic between what might be termed destiny or fate and a seemingly inherent inability on the part of Orpheus to “leave well enough alone,” specifically with regard to his own inner urgings to take one final glance at his beloved Eurydice, whom he has almost—almost—saved from the clutches of Hades. This aching story has fascinated humankind from the dark recesses of Ovid and Virgil to more contemporary accounts like Jean Cocteau’s Orphic Trilogy, where in the middle film of his iconic triptych, Orphée, the philosopher-poet of mid-20th century French cinema transported at least elements of the story into (then) present-day France. And of course one of the most bracing and brilliant films of the post-World War II era remains another reimagining of the story by another Frenchman, Marcel Camus’ inestimable Black Orpheus, a 1959 Brazilian masterpiece which moved the Orpheus and Eurydice myth to the roiling streets of Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro, and which in no small measure helped to popularize Bossa Nova around the world, courtesy of its gorgeous score by Luiz Bonfa and Antonio Carlos Jobim.

Over three centuries before Cocteau and Camus, however, another groundbreaking artist was adapting the Orpheus legend for a “new” form which was just beginning to make its impact felt around the courts of Europe, and especially Italy: namely, opera. Claudio Monteverdi, a childhood prodigy who climbed the corporate ladder as it were in the Italian court musician system to become maestro della musica at the Duke of Mantua’s court in the early 17th century, found himself fortuitously placed to help develop this nascent artistic form. The Duke was a lover of theater and seemed especially fascinated by the blossoming of the “newfangled” musical theater which was slowly penetrating spoken dramatic performances by way of interstitial sung and danced elements called intermedio.

While there are conflicting and incomplete historical records of what exactly was performed at the Duke’s court and when, there’s little doubt that Monteverdi was at the forefront of experiencing this new revolution of sung theater. There’s also some circumstantial evidence that Monteverdi may have accompanied the Duke to a courtly wedding where he probably saw Peri’s Euridice, a piece which may very well have inspired the composer to try his own hand at writing a large scale sung theatrical enterprise which recounted the story of the doomed lovers. Interestingly enough, especially in terms of Camus’ Black Orpheus, Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo was first staged in 1617 in Mantua as part of that duchy’s annual Carnival celebration, a sort of historical Mardi Gras that signaled the beginning of the Lenten season.

L’Orfeo stands at the brink of several nascent developments in the history of music. Not only is it often termed the first “real” opera, it also signals a major transition from the Renaissance to the Baroque period. Monteverdi mines competing ideas and compositional techniques here, melding a florid madrigal style (especially with regard to some of the ravishing ensemble numbers) to what would become more standard operatic tropes like recitative. As was the custom in those days, Monteverdi left quite a bit of the actual accompaniment up to the conductor and the individual pit musicians, and so there is also almost a jazz element to various productions of this masterpiece, with often rather amazing differences between approaches, especially with regard to the continuo, depending on who is conducting and playing.

This elegantly spare and appropriately mythic production from La Scala manages to take a piece which was envisaged for a smaller house and expand it to one of the grandest operatic stages in the world. Director Robert Wilson (who also designed the lights and the evocative sets) opens the piece, which is supposed to be on the Thracian fields, with a cypress lined minimal set and actors, almost like mannequins, placed around the stage so that they seem to be in a sort of Grecian version of Seurat’s Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte. Once La Musica (Roberta Invernizzi, who also portrays Euridice) sets the audience’s collective raging hearts at ease, we enter the actual story of Orpheus (Georg Nigl), and are immediately swept up in a commanding sound world that still has an incredibly visceral quality centuries after its premiere.

Conductor Rinaldo Alessandrini leads a period instrument ensemble of the Orchestra of Teatro alla Scala, with continuo provided by Concerto Italiano. This is some of the most beautifully played Monteverdi you could hope for, with a gorgeous, slightly abrasive secco sound from the strings and brilliantly fulsome brass. Some of the period wind instruments like the sackbut sound appropriately raspy, but always with a certain elegance and nuance that makes this one of the more bracing accounts of L’Orfeu in recent memory.

The almost all Italian cast is perfectly suited to bring Monteverdi’s masterpiece to life. Invernizzi’s incredibly gorgeous, well rounded tone is achingly lyrical and her facility with Monteverdi’s melismas is magical. Nigl is a stout and athletically voiced baritone, but he brings a surprising amount of care and precision to the role. The supporting cast is marvelous, and the ensemble is unbelievably beautiful in some of Monteverdi’s most commanding choral music.

Special note (no pun intended) should be made of Wilson’s unusual and provocative lighting scheme, which plays hand in hand with some equally unusual makeup and costume choices. Almost all of the major characters exist within certain color palettes, so that La Musica for example appears in a florid green dress, with similarly verdant looking skin. Orpheus exists in a similarly green-gray palette that changes to blue and purple as the story progresses. It’s a really interesting conceit that adds a fair amount of visual flair to this presentation. The costumes themselves (by Jacques Reynaud) are sumptuous and easily evoke a distant mythical realm of iconic characters. This is also an unusually well directed outing in terms of the filming techniques. Nice dissolves, lots of great close-ups, and excellent coverage of the orchestra during the interludes help elevate the visual presentation.

L’Orfeo helped usher in the modern idea of opera, but perhaps its most singular achievement is that even now, centuries after its debut, it still retains such impact and clarity. Wilson, Alessandrini, the entire cast and La Scala deserve kudos for treating this project with appropriate respect, while at the same time delivering a fully alive production that should help ensure the charms of Orpheus are sustained for generations to come.

Video Quality

L’Orfeo is presented on Blu-ray by Opus Arte with an AVC encoded 1080i transfer in 1.78:1. The image here may appear to some to be slightly on the soft side, but my opinion is this is based largely on the unusual lighting scheme director Robert Wilson employs for his staging of the opera. We get long scenes played out almost entirely within the framework of one spectrum, sometimes green, sometimes blue, sometimes purple, and that monochromatic approach can rob the image of some fine detail. However close-ups reveal a wealth of detail, including gorgeous filigree on the sumptuous costumes by Jacques Reynaud and even the slathered on makeup on the actors which blends their skin tones with whatever individual color is being exploited at the time. There’s not much to the set design here, with a stark and minimalist approach. But colors are nicely saturated, contrast and black levels are strong, and though this isn’t the sharpest Opus Arte release in recent memory, it sports a well above average image that should entrance most viewers.

Audio Quality

L’Orfeo offers two stunning lossless tracks in the original Italian, a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and an LPCM 2.0. Though La Scala is a perhaps improbably large venue for this intimate piece, generally balance is very good to excellent and the fidelity is simply ravishing. The period instruments here sound incredibly full and alive, and there is very expressive dynamic range. Very occasionally some of the singers disappear for just a second or two beneath the orchestral masses, but it’s a very small and not very distracting anomaly. The voices generally sound absolutely wonderful here, and special acclamation must be given to the really inimitable work of the ensemble, which sounds simply beautiful in the choral numbers. Hall ambience is very lifelike and there’s appropriate “breathing room” given here that allows Monteverdi’s beautiful ornamentations to waft out into the soundfield very naturally.

Special Features and Extras

  • Illustrated Synopsis (1080i; 4:18)
  • Cast Gallery (1080i; 00:52)

Overall Score and Recommendation

With a piece as iconic and historically important as Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, there are two diametrically opposed approaches that a lot of companies and directors tend to take, neither of which ultimately works very well. First, there’s a tendency to be too respectful of the source material, robbing it of its immediacy and poignancy. Second, and probably worse, is the modern day hubristic approach whereby some directors want to “tart up” the proceedings to supposedly make them more “accessible” to modern day audiences. Robert Wilson toes a very fine line here, probably leaning slightly toward the respectful side, but the good news is he has sacrificed none of L’Orfeo’s emotional impact. Even better, this is about as elegantly sung and played a performance as one could hope for. We’re still early on for this year’s opera and classical music releases, but I for one can’t imagine there being a better all around release than this elegant and moving L’Orfeo. Highly recommended.



David Denton
David's Review Corner, March 2011

First performed in 1607, Monteverdi’s Orfeo was an early example of an opera in the modern sense of the word. It was also one of the first to be written in discernable acts, and was intended for a spectacular production. The present 2009 production from the stage of La Scala, Milan, not only avoids spectacle, but only by hearing the words would you have any idea what should have been visually be taking place. The result is a very stylized presentation by Robert Wilson based on a famous painting by Titian, the costumes suggesting the elegance of the early 18th century. Movement is either exaggerated in a slow and deliberate manner or by abrupt jerkiness, the stage is bare apart from trees and fake animals in the opening and conclusion. I found this lack of visual effects concentrated my attention on the excellence of the singing, Monteverdi having used the well-known story of Orfeo descending into Hell to rescue his beloved Euridice, only for her to disappear before his eyes when he looks back to make sure she is following, and action forbidden if his rescue is to succeed. Monteverdi apparently wrote more than one ending, probably to please whoever was paying him, the present production using the original story. The score places much weight on the shoulders of Orfeo, and I greatly enjoyed the performance of Georg Nigl. His voice is not free of a working acquaintance with late 19th century opera, but it provides all of the virtuosity and vocal agility required. Roberta Invernizzi, in the dual role of La Musica and Euridice, has a nicely focused voice, but is rather overshadowed by the excellent Sara Mingardo in the roles of Sylvia and Speranza. Of the remaining soloists, Furio Zanasi much impresses as Apollo. I am still trying to work out ‘who does what’ in the orchestra pit, as we have ‘Orchestra of Teatro alla Scala’ and ‘Concerto Italiano’ credited in the booklet. I can only add that it is a period orchestra of high quality, well directed by Rinaldo Alessandrini who is very much in Monteverdi mode. The filming is imaginative; the Blu-ray quality is gorgeous, and it comes with translated subtitles. Also available on DVD OA1044D.






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