AS the Boston Early Music Festival wrapped up its six-day round of performances, exhibitions, and master classes last week, the opera "L'Orfeo" was a clear highlight.
For an opera written in 1607, Claudio Monteverdi's work - at least in the hands of musical director Andrew Parrott and stage director Simon Target - was surprisingly accessible and quite entertaining. Far from being dull or impossibly erudite, this historically accurate version of "L'Orfeo" came to life through the efforts of a fine cast of singers, instrumentalists, and dancers.
This year's festival also honored the 450th anniversary of composer William Byrd's birth. More than 60 events jam-packed numerous small venues on the Harvard University campus here, and there was a slightly chaotic and zoo-like atmosphere at many of the events because of high attendance and poor crowd control.
The festival continued its policy of including all kinds of early music, from a fascinating concert of early Greek and Turkish music (by the Eurasia Ensemble and Karavani) to the Boston Camerata's presentation of "Trav'ling Home," which included a rare selection of Shaker songs.
Always a festival highlight, the exhibition of more than 120 craftsmen, publishers, record companies, and dealers of rare books, manuscripts, prints, and antique instruments was squeezed into fairly tight quarters in Alumni and Sever Halls. Though attendance was excellent, patrons reportedly were not buying as much as in years past.
For even the most casual of observers, however, the exhibition was a visual and musical delight, with ornately decorated early keyboards, viols, percussion, wind, and brass instruments on display for viewing and playing.
The 350th anniversary of Monteverdi's death was a focal point of this year's festival, which included concerts, lectures, and master classes revolving around the composer's works. Monteverdi (1567-1643) stands as a seminal figure in the history of Western music. His work functions somewhat as a bridge between the 16th and 17th centuries, between the Renaissance and Baroque eras.
Whereas most composers of the day were firmly entrenched in the "old style," the stricter, more restrained practice in which music dominated a given text, Monteverdi's work exemplified the "modern" or "free style," in which melodic line and ornamentation, harmonic dissonance, and rhythmic variety were used to aid in the complete expression of the text. Monteverdi's work exemplifies the new aesthetic: It features musical style as an expressive means for portraying and shaping dramatic context. His composi tions are enlivened with bright rhythms, shifting meters, melodic and harmonic nuance, and a remarkable fluidity.
Monteverdi is considered by many to be the creator of opera, and "L'Orfeo" was the composer's first work in the genre. The libretto by Alessandro Striggio sticks closely to the traditional myth of Orpheus, who represents the mystical power of music, the link between the human and the divine.
Monteverdi set the opera in a prologue and five acts. The first part of the opera, which focuses on the wedding preparations of Orfeo and Euridice, is lively and up-tempo, full of ceremony and pageantry. The succession of theatrical tableaux is complemented by a variety of musical forms - recitatives, arias, duets, quartets, choruses, dances, and instrumental pieces.
With the arrival of the Messenger, who delivers the news of Euridice's death, however, the tone gets more somber and slower. The bulk of the rest of the story is told in longer, more sustained recitatives and arias as Orfeo travels to Hades then ultimately Paradise to rejoin his beloved Euridice. For contemporary tastes, it could feel a bit slow, but the instrumental coloration by the Boston Early Music Festival's relatively large orchestra (including recorders, cornettos, trumpet, sackbuts, and kettledr ums in addition to strings, harp, and keyboards) was remarkably varied.
Spatial aspects added another dimension to this production, as groups of players moved in and out of the performance area for a variety of effects. The excellent orchestra comprised of members of The King's Noyse, Concerto Palatino, and others included Parrott and Elisabeth Wright on harpsichord and organ, harpist Andrew Lawrence-King, and Paul Odette and Catherine Lidell on the huge, guitar-like chitarrones.
Despite the difficulty in controlling the stuffy climate in Sanders Theatre, the group's intonation was solid, and ensemble was tight, flexible, and expressive. The singers were also impressively solid.
Joseph Cornwell was an able lyrical Orfeo. His was easily the most impassioned singing of the opera, and his strong rich tenor had an almost romantic throb in spots, yet he handled the tricky ornamentation gracefully.
Maria Jette sang with a pure sweet soprano as Euridice, but her characterization was impossibly waxen, surely no inspiration for the ardent Orfeo.
Emily Van Evera had a marvelous dynamic and expressive range in her role as La Musica and Proserpina. In contrast, Paul Guttry was flat and colorless as Plutone. As the tragic Messaggiera, Danielle Forget teetered on the edge of despair. Unfortunately, in her distress, she wandered off pitch at times.
In Target's small-scale and intimate production, the staging was more stylized than realistic, and for the most part, it worked beautifully. But, it also resulted in some awkward transitions and a lack of emotional power in key spots.
Dancing (by Deena Grassia and Noah Racey) was wonderfully woven throughout the opening celebration and the brief finale, giving those sections a festive air. Charles Garth's choreography included some entertaining acrobatics as well.
The scenery by James Middleton, was based on designs from a play of 1608 and consisted of six four-sided columns that flanked the stage and rotated to provide two rather unimpressive settings: the fields of Thrace and the gates of Hades. Middleton's costumes included knickers and laurel wreaths for the men and mid-calf dresses in spectacular fabrics for the women. Only the wildy bewigged "punk" spirits of the underworld seemed strangely out of place.