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Orfeo in Orvieto

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.

Monteverdi himself models such a resonance of echoes in Act V of Orfeo, where a solo becomes a duet when the figure of Echo repeats, with poignant nuance, the final word of Orpheus’s every lament.

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. Coonrod has been widely acclaimed for her productions of Shakespeare at the Public Theater in New York, for her work performed in New York, Chicago, Romania and Italy with East European writers such as Andras Visky, and for her staging of stories by Flannery O’Connor and Gertrude Stein and the poetry of Walt Whitman. Her productions of the medieval mystery plays – Strangers and Other Angels – from 2004 to 2006 through the streets and piazzas of Orvieto restored drama to the town’s Festival of Corpus Christi, the holiday that gave impetus for such sacred street theater. Gina Leishman, highly regarded in New York and internationally as a composer, director and instrumentalist, has transcribed the music for our unusual small ensemble of instruments and will conduct 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), Nicola Ebau (bass), 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.