by Jeff Grygny
The ensemble, clad in blue jeans and black T shirts, barefoot and glittering with gold jewelry, stands in a circle around the grief-struck hero. As the last sunlight filters through the stained glass windows of Calvary Presbyterian Church, ancient instruments play solemn music. One player pours water from a ceramic bowl into their neighbor’s bowl, and so on, until the water has completed its way around. It is a powerful embodiment of shared sorrow.
Thus Orfeo resolves to go to the land of the dead to rescue his lost lover Euridice, in a daringly unconventional performance of L’Orfeo, the world’s first great opera, composed by Claudio Monteverdi and first performed in 1607. The enterprising folks of Milwaukee Opera Theatre have gathered a consort of Renaissance instrument players, collaborated with local sacred music collective Aperi Animam, and created a new English translation of the Italian libretto. The result is an original and conceptually daring work; a pure aesthetic experience unsullied by the demands of commercial entertainment.
Opera was originally conceived as a re-creation of Greek tragedy as described in Aristotle’s Poetics. L’Orfeo is clearly an early effort in what was later to bloom into the glorious emotional excess of grand opera. Musically, there is only one recognizable “hook,” and though the story involves high tragedy and supernatural adventure, the score consistently rings with the cheery pomp of a baroque court. Director/translator Daniel Brylow stages the opera as an initiation into the mystery of Orpheus. The action is stylized, with the feeling of a ceremony enacting a story that has been re-enacted for countless generations. The singers move with stately steps and slow, symbolic gestures. Their faces are passive masks, revealing only the most universal emotions. It’s like looking at a series of ancient friezes: the Elgin Marbles depicting the blinged-up patrons of a biker bar.
As is customary with MOT, some of the characters are gender-switched. Jackie Willis sings the title role of Orfeo (pronouns: he, his) with dignity and subtle feeling, exerting all his musical power to win entry into Pluto’s realm. As Apollo, Nicole McCarty’s voice bursts in like sunlight suddenly flooding a dark room. But this is a staged recital, not musical theater, and music takes precedence over characterization and drama.
There’s deep history behind the the show’s culty vibe (which is similar to MOT’s last collaboration with AA, the goth/gnostic spectacle Utterance). The figure of Orpheus, the musician with magical powers, has always been connected to mystery religions with secret rites and heterodox metaphysics. Some scholars trace their origins to orgiastic cults of Thrace that involved an obscure deity named Zagreus and predate recorded history. That cult evolved into the bacchanalian worship of Dionysus, where it became associated with Orpheus because of its themes of death and rebirth. Later, in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, the rites were reassigned to the god Apollo and linked to Neoplatonist mystical concepts of reincarnation and immortality. Then, in the Renaissance, after Cosimo de Medici commissioned the first European translations of Plato, Neoplatonism and Greek mythology became all the rage once more, inspiring countless artists, musicians and poets. So yeah, that’s a lot of history. And from that we get L’Orfeo.
The new English translation by Daniel Brylow and Joseph Krohlow (which was helpfully projected on the walls to facilitate our understanding), reveals just how much the libretto invokes Renaissance philosophy. Without getting too deep into the weeds, Neoplatonists taught that the body is the prison of the soul, and through purification and virtue, we can return to our true eternal source in the One beyond the world of change. In this version of the story, Orfeo, just as in the mythic account, turns, sees Euridice, and loses her. But soon after he returns in sorrow to the world of daylight, the god Apollo appears and rewards him with eternal life among the gods, along with Euridice—just as the ancient Orphic cult promised its initiates.
Ritual is one thing for the believer and quite another for the casual audience. At its best, this production illuminates the transcendental metaphysics of its source material and, while it is too stylized to evoke any deep emotional catharsis, it could very conceivably serve as a kind of meditative therapy for the grief that fills our world. But despite all the love and labor that it clearly displays, it begins to feel like a staid church pageant after about the two-hour mark. Nietzsche wrote of the aesthetic struggle between Apollonian rational order and chaotic, visceral Dionysian energy. This L’Orfeo takes Apollo’s side with great integrity—but it’s hard not to wish for just a hint of Thracian revelry to spice the dish.
Milwaukee Opera Theatre and Aperi Animam present
Music by Claudio Monteverdi
Libretto by Alessandro Striggio
English translation by Daniel Brylow and Joseph Krohlow
Stage Director: Daniel Brylow
Music Director: Jackie Willis