Iván Fischer’s L’Orfeo can be best described as a curious endeavour. Billed as “the reconstruction of the libretto’s original concept”, this production makes a radical change to the opera’s ending: instead of the well-known lieto fine with Apollo’s appearance and Orfeo’s ascension to heaven, Fischer restores the final scene of Alessandro Striggio’s original 1607 libretto in which Orfeo is torn to pieces by Bacchantes. Monteverdi’s original score of the opera’s Mantuan premiere not having survived, Fischer composed the music for Act V himself.

<i>La favola d'Orfeo</i> © Judit Horváth
La favola d'Orfeo
© Judit Horváth

The result of this “reconstruction” is an intriguing mix. The new ending is certainly a novelty, and Fischer’s additions of the Bacchante’s celebrations are both charming and stylistically unobtrusive, but it cannot be considered a complete triumph. The preceding four acts are entirely focused on Orfeo: to have the titular character unceremoniously murdered off-stage at the start of the fifth and entirely absent for the rest of the finale feels jarringly disjointed to say the least. Perhaps Monteverdi was simply right to choose the “Apollonian” finale in his 1609 publication of the opera. Striggio’s original ending may have stayed true to the classical myth, but it is also less coherent dramatically, and even less cathartic than the deus ex machina conclusion.

The aim to return to an “original” form was felt in Fischer’s very conventional style of staging as well. Set against the projected image of the Teatro Olimpico’s scaenae frons (where the production will be performed during the Vicenza Opera Festival), Fischer’s staging combined straightforward storytelling with costumes and sets evoking the era of Ancient Greece, the stage action enlivened by some period-appropriate dancing (choreographed by the BFO’s long-time collaborator in Baroque affairs, Sigrid T’Hooft). A more contemporary touch was provided by the video and lightning designs by Vince Varga and Tamás Bányai, which worked wonderfully in shaping the set and creating different atmospheres, especially for the Underworld acts.

<i>La favola d'Orfeo</i> © Judit Horváth
La favola d'Orfeo
© Judit Horváth

Although the production succeeded in delivering an unfussy presentation of Orpheus myth, it also felt wanting in more ways then one. A bit more involved Personenregie would have been welcome, as the singers tended to become quite statuesque, but more importantly, the staging felt too timid. For a production that was already willing to so radically change the opera, a bolder approach to the staging would have also felt appropriate: as it stood, the performance never quite rose above the pleasant entertainment of a pastoral play.

Musically the performance proved strong (though never quite awing), owing to its uniformly committed cast, chorus and orchestra. In the title role, Valerio Contaldo showed off a bright, flexible tenor that shone beautifully in “Possente spirto”, though his singing could have been more emotive. Emőke Baráth’s full-toned, gleaming soprano and moving performance delighted in the smaller roles of Euridice and La Musica. Luciana Mancini’s rich, earthy mezzo and expressive delivery made her La messaggera and Bacchante one of the highlights of the evening. Núria Rial impressed both as Proserpina and as a Bacchante. As the shepherds, Cyril Auvity and Francisco Fernández-Rueda sang delightfully and blended well together, while Michał Czerniawski delivered a sensitively sung, warm-toned La Speranza. Antonio Abete’s performance as Caronte was solid, but his voice was missing some infernal menace necessary for embodying the gatekeeper of the Underworld. Peter Harvey’s velvety-voiced Plutone was a pleasure to hear, but, much like Abete, mild in tone. Singing from the orchestra pit, the Chorus of the Iván Fischer Opera Company delivered with a smooth, mellifluous tone, shining especially in the newly composed bacchanale of the finale.

<i>La favola d'Orfeo</i> © Judit Horváth
La favola d'Orfeo
© Judit Horváth

The Budapest Festival Orchestra performed with verve, beauty of tone and sensitive phrasing, maintaining a brisk, lively tempo. Fischer's conducting also had its curiosities: above all, it was an interesting choice to have the toccata slowly build up from a solitary woodwind, rather than open the opera with its usual bombast of the brass and drums, though this unconventional start did not detract from the high quality of the orchestra's performance. Overall, this L'Orfeo certainly made for a good evening's entertainment – a pleasant rather than a profound experience.

***11