Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo is one of the few 17th works still in the canonical opera repertoire though little performed before the “early music revival”. So it was quite a bold step when the Opernhaus Zürich in the 1970s staged all three extant Monteverdi operas in productions by J-P ponelle and with Nikolaus Harnoncourt leading an orchestra of period instruments. All three productions were subsequently made into lip-synched films and have been re-released on DVD by Deutsche Grammophon as a boxed set.
The L’Orfeo is very typical of Ponnelle films. Costumes combine elements of the 17th century with elements of antiquity. There are strong verticals. Although shot in a studio the piece is still set in a theatre, or something rather like one. There’s a kind of naivity to the camera work and a heavy use of the nose-cam. Anyone who has seen other examples of Ponnelle opera films will recognise it instantly.
The details of the production are really quite odd. The lemur described Orfeo himself as :looking like Sinbad the Sailor in a 1970s movie” and he’s matched by a strangely doll like Euridice. The first couple of acts are a bit manic and reminiscent of the Wizard of Oz before we descend into a sort of Halloween House Hades with skulls and cobwebs and exaggerated make-up. It’s interesting in a hyperkinetic sort of way but I don’t think it has much to say.
The music making is very classy though in a raw kind of way that seems totally apt for Monteverdi. No burnished strings here. This is Harnoncourt doing his thing (and so young and with a very 70s haircut) and doing it very well. The band is Das Monteverdi-Ensemble des Opernhauses Zürich which must be, I guess, the beginnings of the Zürich tradition of having members of the regular orchestra form a period instrument band; an excellent practice embodied today in La Scintilla. The singers were, I assume, drawn from the Zürich house ensemble because there are no big names. Still, it’s a strong singing cast headed by the Orfeo of Philippe Huttenlocker There are other strong performances from Trudeliese Schmidt as La Musica, Hans Franzen as Caronte and Glenys Linos as Proserpina. There’s also an early appearance of Francisco Ariaza as one of the shepherds.
Technically the disk package shows its age. The picture is slightly washed out, somewhat grainy 4:3. The sound is better with decent reprocessed DTS 5.1 surround sound which, on this disk, I preferred to the LPCM stereo which is not always the case with DG’s reprocessed efforts. There are no extras and documentation is fairly basic. It’s unfortunate. I would have like to know more about the instrumentation used. Subtitles are English, French, German, Spanish and Chinese.
So, not a definitive production and showing its age but, nonetheless, an intriguing look at Harnoncourt early in his career. Reviews of the Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria and L’incoronazione di Poppea will follow in due course.