The seed for the June 2014 production of Orfeo in the courtyard-garden of Palazzo Simoncelli was sown fifteen years earlier when we two long-time friends had begun brainstorming theater projects suited to the historic cliff-top Umbrian town of Orvieto, where my work directing an academic program eased the way for such collaborations. We discovered, to our surprise, that we both dreamed of producing Claudio Monteverdi’s Orfeo– a touchstone of early Italian opera first performed in 1607 for the Gonzaga court in Mantua. We got as far as gathering a small ensemble of musicians in 2002 to workshop ideas for Orfeo. But it took another dozen years for the constellation of stars – of singers and musicians and designers and patrons – to come together to create Orfeo in Orvieto under the artistic direction of Karin Coonrod and the musical direction of Gina Leishman. Why the fascination with Monteverdi’s Favola in Musica? Well, for me, I just loved the music, loved the opening toccata, loved the lyricism of Monteverdi’s madrigals, opera, and liturgical music alike, rhetorically sophisticated yet neither ponderous nor bombastic. I harbored a hunch that pre-modern opera bore a new timeliness for us postmodern folk. For those for whom the old synapses of European cultural tradition were fraying, and for those never habituated into that tradition, the very artificialities of the genre could have a raw immediacy when restored to intimate performance in settings with no fourth wall. Released from the theater-as-museum and performed by small ensembles adapting the score and libretto to the local givens, an opera like Orfeo can revivify both the myth of Orpheus recounted by Ovid and Virgil and the boatload of poetry and visual art inspired by the singer’s failed descent into the underworld to retrieve his beloved.
The Colombari production of Monteverdi’s ORFEO begins in the open courtyard of the early renaissance Palazzo Simoncelli in Orvieto, Italy in July 2014. Sandro, our accordionist, traverses the courtyard and calls the scattered audience to attention, while the other instrumentalists join him from different places in the courtyard, thus setting the stage for La Musica to begin. The outer reaches of the courtyard are the super- natural areas while the grass plot itself is the carpet on which the story is played out. The upstage wall is not only the set’s centerpiece but also a character bearing witness through time.
When John Conklin and I co-adapted this project we decided to excise all the shepherds (thereby making a virtue of economic necessity) and also include spoken text and written text (on the wall) from Ovid, Virgil, Rilke and Sarah Ruhl. Interwoven in the creation of the performance is the alternate Dionysion ending in juxtaposition with that of Apollo’s descent. Taking our cue from the original production in 1607, it seemed appropriate to interrupt the clean ending with the passion of Dionysos.
Several moments in the piece are etched deep in the memory: the moment of Orfeo’s turn to see Euridice is a haunting one in which Francesca, the singer, moves silently backwards across the entire space, a distended piece of time during which Gina plays the rim of a glass thereby creating an unearthly sound in the night air. Sometimes in this carefully sculpted moment one could hear a gasp in the audience. That is always the music I long for.
Everyday as we gathered at our location underneath the ever changing sky, we learned more about silence, timelessness and change, until we were able to acknowledge our discovery in performance before our audience. The sky was my muse in directing this piece about the lover- poet-prophet and the reconciliation of realms.
When Karin first approached me about doing an adaptation of Monteverdi’s Orfeo I thought “yes!” (I had specialized in early music at Edinburgh University, going on to work with David Munrow - the original English pied piper of the field - before running off into the land of jazz and circus). Then, at the first meeting with her and John Conklin, they told me that the basic 5-member ensemble included an accordion and a drummer and I thought “what?” But then I spent 5 days with the Orvietani that first summer in 2013, on a mission of exploration, and fell in love – with the place, with the people and with the whole idea. The telling moment: we were working on an arrangement for a sinfonia when suddenly the small, motley ensemble gelled into the sound of one beautiful, totally unidentifiable instrument, and I thought “yes!” But alas, there was no lute or guitar – so I had a mandola built (thank you Roger Bucknall) – perfect...
The big challenges in making the score reduction – creating a small line drawing from the massive oil painting, honouring the original while not being a slave to it – were often solved by thinking up- side down: for example, some of the larger presentational moments ended up being played pianissimo – such as Speranza’s aria in our Act II, reduced to voice, cello obbligato and mandola, each placed in an extreme part of the courtyard...
Time was short in Orvieto, and the challenges enormous, but the sheer joy and generosity of all concerned – especially the Orvietani – more than made up for the frustrations. I thought of the irrepressible spirit of Mr. Munrow often, from the opening Toccata announced on solo accordion, to the finale sung with the audience and then played as a tarantella – vive la joie!
Over the course of three nights the Colombari production of Orfeo in Orvieto emerged into Umbrian night. As the sky floating like a immense Baroque ceiling above the courtyard of the Palazzo Simoncelli gradually darkened, the faded pink and pale yellow wall began to glow, the flowering urn in the center of the space took on shape and color, the grass burned green in the theatrical light. The singers and musicians in their magnificent costumes – all rich as jewels in a golden setting – started to inhabit the space.
It had begun – after so many months of preparation and planning. Karin Coonrod’s elegant direction; Gina Leishman’s equally elegant musical adaptations; the nuanced work of the soloists (Stephen Salters, Francesca Bruni, Stefano Benini) – now joyous, now poignant; the vital intensity of the musicians; the dramatic force of Andrea Brugnera as the narrator (speaking the words of Ovid, Virgil and Rilke); the beauty of Oana Botez’s costumes; the revelation of Peter Ksander’s lights as they explored the mysterious depths of the columns and recesses of the courtyard all now came into play.
These comments by John Skillen (director of the Studio, and producer of Orfeo), Karin Coonrod (artistic director), and Gina Leishman (music director), and John Conklin (designer) are taken from a limited-edition book about the 2014 production of Orfeo in Orvieto created by Andrea Messana, the photographer of the project.
In this new production of Orfeo, as in all of her work, artistic director Coonrod couples a deep respect for the original text with strategies for making an old work newly compelling for an audience of today. Coonrod along with music director Gina Leishman and stage designer John Conklin have introduced into the original libretto echoes of the versions of the legend that would have resonated in the minds of Renaissance audiences – along with after-echoes resonant in the modern imagination evoked by poets such as Rilke. Performed in the garden-courtyard of Palazzo Simoncelli, Colombari’s Orfeo offers echoes for a twenty-first-century audience of the intimate settings at the origin of modern opera. The action unfolds around the audience, dissolving distance between actors and audience, drawing all together in the final dance.
But the most tangible resonance is with the cliff-top city of Orvieto itself, a city whose superstructure rises over a parallel volume of excavated underground caverns. It is a city where every palazzo – the Palazzo Simoncelli included – conceals its own entrance to the underworld.
Orvieto is an appropriate setting for such a story for a second reason. It is home to one of the most significant depictions in Renaissance art of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. In the decorative lower zone of his fresco cycle of scenes from the End Times and the Last Judgment in the San Brizio Chapel of the Orvieto Duomo, Luca Signorelli summarizes the story in two medallions surrounding the classical poet Virgil. With his ability to charm and pacify the king of the underworld, Orpheus came to be seen as a classical analogy of harp-playing David of the Old Testament, and as a foreshadow of the Christ who calms the primordial elements of nature in the New Testament. Placed beneath the great mural of the gathering of the damned in Hell, Signorelli’s Orpheus – having tragically failed in his mission – echoes Christ’s successful descent into Hades to retrieve the faithful God-seekers of the past. Christ’s Harrowing of Hell was understood in Catholic tradition as implicit in the profession of the Apostles’ Creed that Jesus “descended into hell” before he “rose from the dead.” The scene is depicted frequently in medieval and Renaissance art, and was the subject of an episode included in the cycles of sacred drama. Signorelli moved in the circle of the Florentine Christian humanists, whose leader Marsilio Ficino was called the “new Orpheus.” The poet Angelo Poliziano’s dramatic poem Orfeo was inspiration and touchstone for the several operas on the Orphean legend soon to follow, chief among them that of Claudio Monteverdi.
Coonrod and her ensemble approach Orfeo in the same spirit that she has approached all her work: “moving away from the old model of one huge star around which everybody revolves, and into a constellation full of stars.” The Orfeo constellation draws together some very bright stars indeed. Gina Leishman, highly regarded in New York and internationally as a composer, director and instrumentalist, has transcribed the music for the unusual small ensemble of instruments and conducts the opera. Baritone Stephen Salters, singing the title role, is one of the young stars of the international operatic stage. Designer John Conklin was the recipient in 2011 of a lifetime achievement award from the National Endowment for the Arts for his distinguished career in opera stage and costume design. The ensemble of singers and instrumentalists from Orvieto are trusted professionals, most of whom have worked with Coonrod on previous projects: Stefano Benini (tenor), Francesca Bruni (soprano), Riccardo Cambri (harpsichord), Sandro Paradisi (accordion), Dino Graziani (violin), Rita Graziani (flute), and Alessandro Graziani (percussion). In Coonrod and Leishman’s trimmed libretto, some sections are spoken rather than sung, performed by the actor Andrea Brugnera.