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The minimalist staging of Robert Wilson's opera productions is not something that is to everyone's taste, but it is certainly unique and idiosyncratic, and no matter how familiar you are with a particular opera, you can be sure that Wilson's stage direction will provide a new way of looking at a piece and bring out elements or propose ideas that you might never have considered before. It is however not suited to every kind of opera. His production for Aida several years ago at the Royal Opera House was visually striking in its beauty and in the wondrous and carefully considered colour-coded light schemes, but the static nature of the production simply sucked the life out of one particular opera that merits a slightly more vibrant approach, if not necessarily always quite as flamboyant as Zeffirelli's.
On the other hand, the stripped-down staging works better, it seems to me, when applied to more abstract subjects or at least the more archetypal matters of Greek mythology in opera seria and Baroque opera. Wilson's work for the Paris Châtelet productions of Alceste and Orphée et Eurydice, for example, is appropriate and perfectly in accordance with Gluck's reforming of over-elaborate and long-winded opera. The same should apply, one would think, to Monteverdi's L'Orfeo, the work that is considered the first opera proper - first performed in Mantua in 1607 - and, for many, the model to which opera should aspire. All the huge archetypes are there in its mythological subject - Heaven and Hades, with Eros, Fate, Hope and, most significantly, Music itself personified and indeed the main narrative force who introduces and tells the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, as well as the means by which the opera expresses itself.
This is the kind of material that is perfect for Robert Wilson's interpretations, and all the familiar characteristics of his approach are here in this production for La Scala in 2009 - static figures making strange poses with enigmatic hand movements, stage props reduced to geometric shapes, the colour scheme a limited palette of greys, pale blues and pale green. In contrast to his non-specific approach to Orphée et Eurydice, L'Orfeo is practically period - in the period of Monteverdi, that is - inspired by Titian's Venus with Cupid and an Organist (1548), with Thrace a Renaissance version of the Garden of Eden, by way perhaps of Gainsborough. On a first viewing, I'm not convinced that such a staging brings anything new from Monteverdi's famous opera this time, but it is interesting and worth considering.
As for the opera and its performance, well, L'Orfeo is a masterpiece that does indeed wield a heavy influence over the artform, or for at least a hundred and fifty years afterwards. It's a celebration of man's ability, intellect and ingenuity, taming nature and the seas, speaking with the voice of the Gods through music and, through Orpheus, even challenging Death itself through his singing and its expression of the finest human passions and sentiments. It's a worthy subject for what is generally considered the first opera - an artform that would unite so many artistic qualities, not least of which is music and singing. Monteverdi's opera accordingly lives up to the high standards it sets.
L'Orfeo is more detailed in its scoring and specification of instruments than Monteverdi's final opera Il Ritorno di Ulisse in Patria, for example, but how it is performed is highly interpretative nonetheless. Early music specialist Rinaldo Alessandrini's conducting of the opera of La Scala is therefore not for me to criticise, but I would find it hard to find any serious fault with it other than the actual sound mix not quite having the transparency of other versions I've heard - notably the Pierre Audi Netherlands Opera recording at the Muziektheater in Amsterdam. I would however state a preference for John Mark Ainsley's lyrical Orpheus in that version over the rather deeper tenor of Georg Nigl. The contrasts and differences should be appreciated however, as it is through them that new thoughts and ideas still arise out of an opera that is now over 400 years old - and on that basis, this is a fine production.
The quality of the presentation on the Opus Arte Blu-ray is as good as you would expect, with a clear 16:9 High Definition transfer, PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mixes. The only extras on the disc however are a Cast Gallery and an Illustrated Synopsis. The thin booklet presents some background on the history of the opera, but there is no information at all on the production itself.