baroque composer Claudio Monteverdi and librettist Alessandro Stringio1607 opera The Orfeo may not be the oldest opera in the Western classical tradition, but it is the oldest still performed regularly. The opera is based on the best-known story of the hero and prophet of Greek mythology Orpheus: His trip to hell to bring back his wife Eurydice back to the world of the living. It is possible that Monteverdi identified with the grief of the Thracian bard: in the same year he composed The Orfeohis wife, the singer Claudia de Cattaneisdeceased.
Serial’ The night song of Orpheus is not a traditional The Orfeo reduced to the Source Theater (it will move to Dupont’s proper underground basement for its second weekend before moving to the Baltimore Theater Project). Director and musical director Timothy Nelson conceived it as a collaboration with Theater Nohgaku, an American company specializing in presenting both traditional Noh theater in English and creating new American repertoire with the Noh aesthetic, resulting in a hybrid performance. The combination of such different artistic traditions may seem odd, with their radically different musical styles and modes of presentation, but once one remembers that the supernatural stories of spirits existing in this liminal place between life and death constitute an important part of the Noh repertoire, the story of Orpheus (in most performances played by the tenor Tony Boutte) is an appropriate topic.
The stage is a narrow elevated alley. The ground is covered with paper, suggesting impermanence, with wavy lines evoking both the current of the Styx River and the furrows of raked sand in a Zen garden (Debra Kim Sivigny designed both the set and the costumes). No actor Akira Matsui takes the stage in a voluminous white silk robe called a shozuku, sings her introduction, and sets the stage for the Noh style of acting: a sliding step that allows the actor to move both slowly and quickly while keeping the top of his perfectly still torso, allowing the slightest tilt of the head or movement of the hand to have the greatest dramatic impact. Meanwhile, the choir sings one of Monteverdi’s movements Vespers (translated into Japanese by Eiki Isomura), a suite he composed for the liturgy of the sunset mass, culminating in a “Hallelujah! Orpheus presents Matsui with a mask representing the muse, Music and he gives it one: nô does not hide its theatricality, and its actors play both male and female roles. Matsui similarly plays the goddess Hopeand in the final scene, the divine father of Orpheus, the sun god, Apollo (Monteverdi and Stringio were clearly playing with a syncretic mix of Christian and classical themes).
As a scholar Carrie J. Preston (who also collaborated with Nohgaku) notes in his book Learning to kneel: nô, modernism and educational paths, there has been a history of Western theater artists and Japanese Noh artists collaborating and drawing on each other’s repertoire and techniques for over a century, on a level too intimate and too complex to be simply dismissed as cultural appropriation.
The night song of Orpheus is in this tradition of collaboration and cross-fertilization, which is not limited to the presence of Matsui as a guest artist: Nohgaku’s Jubilith Moore trained opera performers to move like Noh actors. This is done beautifully when the Thracian chorus in the opening act transitions from a frolicsome dance similar to that which one might see in a more traditional style. The Orfeoas they introduce stillness and dress Eurydice (Mara Yaffee), covering his simple Thracian tunic and trousers with the shozuku and tying it with an obi before donning a mask. mask maker Kitazawa Hideta modified the traditional Noh mask, which is carved from a single block of wood and covers the entire face, leaving opera singers‘ mouths and jaws exposed, allowing their voices to project freely.
The INnovātiō Baroque Orchestra is joined by Nohgaku’s Richard Emmert to taiko drum and bamboo flute, accentuating the plucked and bowed strings that define Monteverdi’s score without dominating the singers.
Of course, the rustic feast is just a prelude to death, loss and grief, and Orpheus’ descent into hell in the evening’s second act. Christopher Cowellthe translation of The Orfeo the libretto helps underline some of Stringio’s deliberate allusions to Dante for English-speaking audiences and, but it’s also a moment of spectacle: long strips of black silk become the waters of the River Styx glistening under Paul CallahanLED lights. Orpheus’ negotiations with the rulers of Hades, Pluto (robin McGinness) and Proserpine (Janna Kritz) dressed in their dark silk robes with garlands of purple flowers as visually as musically striking.
The combination of these two centuries-old performing arts is both a remarkable spectacle and a meditation on mythology and mourning.
The Nightsong of Orpheus moves to Dupont Underground from September 16-18. It will then transfer to the Baltimore Theater Project from September 23-25. $35 to $55. inseries.org.