Opera by Monteverdi, co-production of the Handel and Haydn Society and the English National Opera
At: Shubert Theatre, yesterday afternoon
On Feb. 24 , 1607, in the ducal palace of Mantua, modern opera came into the world. Yes, there were other contenders before the premiere of Monteverdi's ``Orfeo," but this brilliant re telling of the Orpheus myth had a dramatic sweep and an expressive grandeur that were completely new. Even today, when treated right, the music still crackles with freshness -- some 400 years later.
There was a decent amount of crackling this weekend at the Shubert Theatre, as the Handel and Haydn Society unveiled a new staging of this seminal work by the American-based Chinese director Chen Shi-Zheng. A co-production with the beleaguered English National Opera, which gave its world premiere in April, this ``Orfeo" is a stylized fusion of traditional Eastern and modern Western elements. The unlikely combination make s for some arresting images that may well stick with you , but Chen's stated desire to reinvigorate old forms through cross-cultural contact remains only partly fulfilled. The line between fusion and pastiche can be a fine one and this production leaves you wondering which side you've ended up on.
Chen's principal nod to the East comes by way of 11 Javanese dancers who serve as a kind of silent Greek chorus, amplifying and commenting on the action through their angular hand movements and quick, graceful steps, evocative of ancient rituals whether real or imagined. The effect is simply strange in the first act wedding scene, where the dancers ply their graceful steps as the Western singers throw down champagne and carouse boorishly around the stage . Elsewhere, the Eastern inflection lends a striking beauty, as when Euridice's body is showered in flowers before her funeral and then drawn away by dancers gliding silently into a world just out of reach.
In the final performance yesterday afternoon, Tom Randle , dressed in a futuristic orange and gray jump suit, sang the title role with a clear, sturdy tenor and ample emotional commitment, even as he was being strapped into a harness and hauled up to the heavens in the final scene. Alyson Cambridge made a compelling Euridice in her precious few moments in the sun. Elizabeth Watts, Kevin Short, William Berger, Robert Honeysucker, and Paula Murrihy complete d the worthy cast. Tom Pye's highly minimalist sets were effective, especially with Scott Zielinski's lighting. Elizabeth Caitlin Ward's costumes, particularly the bug-themed ones, treaded the bo rder between whimsical and bizarre. Conductor Laurence Cummings chose buoyant, flexible tempos in the pit, and the orchestra and chorus for the most part sounded excellent.
Chen will stage two more Monteverdi operas with H&H in future seasons, so he will have ample opportunity to refine his approach to this body of work. At the best moments of his ``Orfeo," the music was allowed to speak for itself, giving eloquent and often poignant voice to the work's central themes, its meditation on human vulnerability, on musical transcendence , and on its earthly limits.