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Going Places In the Berkshires
CurtainUp Looks At a Musical Rarity,
Rossi's L'Orfeo,
a Mega-Musical of Its Day--
An All Too Brief Treat to Launch the Tanglewood Season

The June 17th Bershires Etcetera item about the Boston Early Music Festival's presentation of Luigi Rossi's L'Orfeo at Tanglewood seemed sufficient coverage for an event which would be gone by the time I could give you a first-hand account--and also, since CurtainUp's focus is on theater and not opera. However, after a New York season of new mega-musicals that failed to fully live up to their advance hype, I think this spectacularly successful recreation of a seventeenth century mega-spectacle deserves a place in our archives. Furthermore since BEMF's artistic directors Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs valiant effort to bring their dream for a full-scale production, (but happily shortened by half from the original), of this neglected work to fruition seeded a 5-day presentation in Boston early in June and this two day run at Tanglewood, I suspect (and hope) there'll be other outcroppings that will have you clicking back to this brief report. (Any reader planning a trip to Sweden can in fact see a production in the Drottningholm Court Theater--with a different cast, but the same eye-popping costumes lent by Drottningholm to the BEMF).

To start with a little background. Opera fans are familiar with Monteverdi's opera about the legend of Orpheus whose wife Eurydice was fatally bitten by a snake, resued by Orpheus from Hades only to be thrust back when he fails to live up to his promise not to look at her. However, this 350-year-old work and its composer have fallen between the musical cracks even though its Parisian premiere at the Palais Royal was one of the major musical events of 1647. If you could say a theatrical enterprise of that day matched the hoopla and hype of a Livent production on Broadway, this was certainly it. Coordinated by the Italian-born chief minister of France, Cardinal Mazarin, it was given all the lavish accouterments money could buy--the best musicians and dancers, singers imported from Rome and scenery built and painted by a crew of some 200. Celebrities who flocked to the event included the famous opera composer Jean-Baptiste Lully.

According to BEMF's O'Dette in an interview with Richard Dyer of the Boston Globe, this particular operatic masterpiece was relegated to the musical abyss of the unknown and unsung as a result of the Plague which shut down most of the printing presses that would otherwise have published Rossi's work. At any rate, Stubbs and O'Dette, with the cooperation of the Drottningholm's costume department, have given life to something very special: An opera with all the qualities that make for enjoyable and memorable musical theater experience--gorgeous, lyrical music and a story that's both tragic and comic or to use the classical music terminology, tragicommedia. (Ed Note: Opera buffs familiar with Monteverdi's L'Orfeo will find the story line more diverse and warmer as well as funnier). The costumes are gorgeously colorful and at times ingeniously inventive. The dancing is reminiscent of Kabuki. To paraphrase a famous commercial, you don't have to be an opera lover to be spellbound by this new look at an art form and cultural era often considered too esoteric to have wide audience appeal. The 32-member "Renaissance Violin Band" I heard was outstanding, as were the singers. As one audience member put it at intermission, "they don't know what a wrong note is." The title role was sung by soprano Ellen Hargis--in Rossi's day this part would have been sung by a Castrato. Cyndia Sieden, also a soprano, was a strikingly beautiful Eurydice and Jennifer Lane was equally impressive. This being an "in the past" event it seems pointless to go into details about the rest of the cast except to say that they were all splendid.

Before I close, a word about the dances. Despite the fairly shallow stage of Tanglewood's old Theater, the production was filled with dancing throughout. The scene in which the dancers were dressed in fantasy animal costumes could be pulled out and adapted especially for children. The dancing on this small stage reminded me of one of my major quibbles with this season's big operatic musical Titanic, ( our Titanic review )was that it managed only one dance number--probably because the stage blocking was such that scenes which seemed to call for a dance were often confined to a little space within the large stage.

If you feel too sorry for yourself to have missed it, I suppose you can take heart from the fact that both nights of the Tanglewood production were hot and muggy and with the performing company insisting on keeping the side and back doors of the theater closed, it was something of a physical endurance test. ©right June 1997, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.

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