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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 12, No. 10 June 2007

The Demise of Orfeo: A Return on Stage

by Wah Keung Chan / June 14, 2007

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Claudio Monteverdi composed the world’s first recognized opera masterpiece, Orfeo, in 1607, considered by scholars the watershed year in music when opera was born. Several composers had previously set music to stage, but Orfeo was the first to combine all the dramatic elements of opera as we know it today. One intriguing aspect of Orfeo is Monteverdi’s decision to alter the ending after the opera’s first performance.

During the second performance on February 24, 1607, in Mantua (Italy) and in the published score something was noticeably amiss — the tragic ending of Orfeo was replaced by a more upbeat conclusion. While the original text from the first performance was handed down through the centuries, the music seems to be lost forever. Nevertheless, in honour of the 400th anniversary of the masterpiece, an attempt to restore the original ending has been made. In June 2007, the Montreal Baroque Festival will be presenting Monteverdi’s Orfeo with the restored ending, a 10-minute composition by baroque musician and musical Renaissance man Matthias Maute.

The brainchild of this endeavor is Montreal Baroque’s artistic director, Susie Napper, who, in January 2007, was planning to produce Orfeo as part of her summer festival. The opera relates the myth of Greek poet/singer Orfeo who loses his beloved Euridyce shortly after their wedding. Distraught, Orfeo goes to the depths of hell to win back her life through his beautiful singing. “It was unclear what the original ending was,” notes Napper. “The original mythology had Orfeo being killed by a mob of women, yet Monteverdi’s revised ending seems to have been geared to the audience of the February 24th performance, so I thought of bringing back the first ending.” There are just three baroque-style composers around today, and Napper enlisted one of them, local musician and naturalized Canadian Matthias Maute for the job. He willingly accepted the challenge. Neither Napper nor Maute was dissuaded by the short lead time. “Baroque composers were constantly composing and recomposing,” says Napper matter-of-factly.

Despite his busy schedule, Maute managed to juggle composing with his travels and performances. At first, Maute found fitting in the words was a bit confusing because the original text did not literally describe an intoxicated mob killing. “The audience of the first performance of Orfeo (a small group of noble men and women) was well trained in mythology. That is why a couple of very subtle hints were clearly enough to evoke the imagery of Orfeo's sad end. When Orfeo refers to the "hostile troop" he doesn't seem to be quite aware that he will be killed. The Bacchae (also known as The Bacchantes) constantly refer to the Divine Fury which was aimed at Orfeo. They get drunk (from the “happy plant” that produces alcohol) and in this state of mind things can get out of control....”

Maute’s restoration of the original ending begins in Monteverdi’s style and concludes in music that has elements from the 21st century. Since the opera ends with a mob killing, Maute decided that the text and drama lend themselves to a more contemporary musical treatment that makes this production unique, especially since it will be presented at the Darling Foundry, a Montreal factory converted into a performance facility. “I think Naxos issued a recording in the 1980s that included the ending in spoken form, and in the 1990s, there was a performance in Philadelphia with the ending in Monteverdi’s style,” says Napper.

Hearing Maute talk about Monteverdi’s genius, and the process he underwent for this re-composition, the passion in his work is palpable. “I tried to create a link between the 17th century and the 21st century, and I realized that the best approach is to keep one element of Monteverdi’s. At almost all times, there is one line that comes from the opera over which I put up to twenty more parts. Monteverdi never goes further than seven parts in his interludes or five parts in the choruses. It’s like looking into a pond and the water is very clear on the surface but it gets darker as you go deeper by adding more and more layers. It’s like putting many layers of music history into one score. Usually, composers work with the language of their own time, but with this piece we try to have the past and the present at the same time, which is difficult to do.”

On the basis of formal training, the 44-year-old Maute may not be the ideal composer, but after speaking with him it soon becomes evident that he is well suited to the task of making baroque music relevant to today’s audiences. As a composer, he is completely self-taught, “I studied the composers of the past and I learned by actually composing music of different styles, including baroque, renaissance, choral, jazz, electro-acoustics and serial music. I don’t see myself changing music history; I want to create music that reaches people rather than be understood in 300 years.” Maute has already been successful with several recordings of his tonal works and he has completed one-third of a new opera, The King of Siam, for the baroque ensemble Musica ad rhenum directed by Jed Wentz and slated for a 2009 premiere in Amsterdam.

When asked what he learned from studying Orfeo, Maute replies, “Monteverdi is a great genius like Bach because he takes elements of his time to another level. He has two radically new elements. There is parlando, where singers recite text in a musical way. Monteverdi was the first composer to do that in a convincing way, using language to give birth to music. The parlando represents 90% of the opera. He is able to create a style of parlando that makes very expressive use of intervals, rhythm and harmonies, that manages to make us see different layers of meaning in the language. The chorus and interludes are quite different, using harmonic, simple context to create very interesting structures.The second element is the dramatic structure. The story unfolds with a rather fast pace and the structural rhythm that Monteverdi maintains between the parlando style and the choir pieces/instrumental interludes document his great sense for dramatic development. In this respect he is closer to Mozart than to Handel.”

Maute observes that Monteverdi pushed the limits of what is possible in one key by submitting the chord to “rather rude dissonances” whenever needed and that this led to the reinforcement of dissonance and the use of harmony as colour. He explains, “Modal structures were very present. Composers and listeners at the time were not subjected to the dictates of a dominant note, and it allowed the music to go from one key to another without having to modulate, which is a rather contemporary feature. You can go directly from the 17th century to a later time in history. I made use of harmony as colour rather than modulation. This allows a wide range of possibilities to create different melodies and harmonies, which is quite exciting. Monteverdi manages to use instrumental music to comment on what’s going on. There are interludes that sound like Hindemith, unique in the language of a 17th century composer. In this way, early music is really contemporary music and it still has its say in the 21st century.” Four centuries after the first performance of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, Maute’s restoration of the music for the original ending will certainly be something to behold. n

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