Opera

To Hell and Back

Santa Fe Opera’s “Orfeo” brings a very old story into the 21st century

Lauren Snouffer as La Musica and Luke Sutliff as Orfeo demonstrate the enduring power of Monteverdi’s opera. (Curtis Brown for the Santa Fe Opera)

Versions of the story of Orpheus and Euridice abound—most notably from Virgil and Ovid—but I am partial to Edith Hamilton’s re-telling in which she emphasizes Orpheus’ musical gifts, along with his unspeakable grief. “The very earliest musicians were the gods,” Hamilton writes, followed by “a few mortals so excellent in their art that they almost equaled the divine performers. Of these, by far the greatest was Orpheus.”

Orpheus’ musical talent was so marked, he successfully wooed the maiden Euridice to marry him. The opera in turn opens with La Musica singing about Orpheus’ talent—soprano Lauren Snouffer, who makes a show-stealing debut as both La Musica and Speranza (hope), the latter Orpheus’ companion to the gates of hell where he travels after Euridice dies from a snake bite. Once there, he enchants the underworld’s guardians with his song in order to rescue his beloved.

But he fails to abide the terms set by Plutone—the terrific baritone Blake Denson, who made his debut as Angelotti in this season’s Tosca—to not look back at his bride until they make it home. By peeking back at Euridice (soprano and SFO apprentice Amber Norelai in her company debut), Orpheus loses her forever. In some versions of the myth Hamilton relays, Orpheus’ subsequent grief consumes him, and he is eventually devoured by angry Maenads who tear him to shreds and throw his still-singing head into the river. This does not happen in the operatic version by Claudio Monteverdi. Rather, Orfeo has what passes for a happy ending, ascending to heaven with his father, the god Apollo (sung by SFO apprentice bass-baritone Luke Harnish in his debut).

As for that opera, when it premiered on Feb. 24, 1607 at the Carnival at Mantua, it wasn’t the very first opera in history but, as SFO lecturer Oliver Prezant says, it was the first “great opera,” and it remains the oldest opera still regularly performed. While L’Orfeo has been around for 416 years, the Santa Fe Opera has never mounted the opera before, but does so this summer with tremendous innovation and the loss of the article in the opera’s name).

As it happens, the opening night performance I attended did not include the Santa Fe debut of renowned tenor Rolando Villazón as scheduled. Baritone Luke Sutliff stepped in for Villazón after the latter sustained an injury during the final dress rehearsal—specifically a back injury, Villazón said in a social media post, from the harness he wears during one of the opera’s flying sequences. As of press time, Villazón was slated to return tonight for the remaining performances.

Sutliff, a former SFO apprentice singer, made his company debut as Demetrius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2021, performed the role of El Dancaïro in last season’s Carmen and will return next summer as Belcore in a Stephen Lawless production of Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love. I have no doubt Villazón, for whom Orfeo has become a signature role, will deliver a command performance (clips of his performance last spring in the role at Dresden’s Semperoper are quite amazing). But Sutliff more than ably stepped into a heady production that provided no shortage of visual and musical feats. Of particular note: his rendition of the aria “Possente Spirto,” which he not only sang with a full and sonorous tone but did so while in a harness and simulating flying (with a few flips for good measure).

The production teems with such visual theatrics. Directed by MacArthur Foundation grant winner Yuval Sharon in his company debut, Orfeo makes notable use of lights, strobes and mist, with Lighting and Projection Designers Yuki Nakase Link and Hana S. Kim, respectively, vivifying the opera’s mythological components. Also making their Santa Fe debuts, performance architect Alex Schweder and Matthew Johnson—the latter lead designer of New York’s High Line area—the opera’s visual designers, whose central grassy hill upon where the action begins transforms dramatically into the subterranean Hades to which Orfeo journeys.

In addition to integrating technological and visual flourishes throughout (costume designer Carlos J. Soto, who made his debut in last season’s Tristan und Isolde, employs fabric as both costume and set design, with one particularly compelling moment that ensues as Euridice’s death is announced in a gripping performance by mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy as La Messaggera), Orfeo includes the world premiere of orchestration by Nico Muhly, who says in a statement his main challenge in adapting the work to modern instrumentation was “realizing the continuo parts; everything needs to be, note-for-note, the same as the original, but with a modern musician’s sensibility about embellishment and ornament.” As the New York Times detailed in a preview of the premiere, reorchestrating Monteverdi’s work for modern instruments—a necessity to perform the work in Santa Fe—is another way of keeping one of the earliest examples of the genre alive for modern audiences.

If it sounds as though a lot is going on in the orchestra (ably conducted as always by Harry Bicket), there is. If it sounds as though a lot is happening on stage (and hovering above the stage at times), there is—and I’m leaving a few notable moments out due to space limitations. The intensity of the production is only heightened by its relative briefness: five acts in approximately one hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission.

I found myself on opening night idly imagining Orfeo’s first small audience of royals and royal-adjacent listeners, hearing music arranged in ways wholly novel—with arias, choruses and dances—probably enthralled even without any staging. What would they make of Orfeo circa 2023, flying through space? Of Apollo rising on the sun above the stage? Well, presumably they’d be shocked, but perhaps they’d also simply be grateful the music had endured.

Orfeo

Music by Claudio Monteverdi

World premiere orchestration by Nico Muhly

Libretto by Alessandro Striggio

Sung in Italian

8 pm, Aug 2, 11, 16, 24

$40-$380, plus fees; $15 standing room

First-time NM residents are eligible for a 40% discount; call the box office in advance: (505) 986-5900 or (800) 280-4654. Day-of discounts available for students, seniors and military via the box office by phone or in person.

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