Sometimes, in an opera performance, you hear the very first notes, you take one look at the stage and you know that you’re about to experience something really special. Such an evening happened on the 23rd July in the Prince Regent Theatre in Munich. Under the baton of Ivor Bolton, musicians from the Bavarian State Opera and the Monteverdi Continuo Ensemble joined an outstanding group of singers in Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo. From the outset, the musicians from the State Orchestra, schooled in historically informed performance, played with precise lightness and delicate transparency.

Ivor Bolton is a frequent and welcome guest at the podium of Munich opera orchestras. He is a specialist in baroque opera and knows more than anyone that interpretation on period instruments with baroque bows and gut strings must never be permitted to sound anaemic. The opposite, in fact: the variety of tone, of decoration and of expressive portamenti that every one of these wonderful musicians conjured up from their instruments turned into a celebration of Claudio Monteverdi’s enormously multi-layered and dramatic score. Amongst all these virtuosi of the State Opera Orchestra, I’m going to single out for special mention the performer of one instrument that one hardly ever takes note of: the tambourine. This so entranced us with dancing lightness and multifarious sounds and tones that you could hardly believe that this is a simple drum with bells.

Director David Bösch’s setting consists basically of an open space, in which scenes are lit in various intense shades of white, grey and black. At the beginning, the ground is strewn with black refuse sacks which, we later discover, conceal giant flowers on long stalks. True to the text, in the wedding of the lovers Orfeo and Euridice in an Arcadian paradise, the flowers rise gently upwards as their stems hang towards the ground. This ingenious trick gives a three dimensional feel to the room throughout the wedding scene, which is transformed in an almost cinematic way into a hippie gathering with its obligatory VW camper van. As the story progresses and Orfeo descends into the underworld, another magical trick follows in the lowest part of the space: simultaneously, the flower stalks are drawn upwards, while pale, flat-faced puppets appear downwards, head first, with deathly grotesque features such as you might see in a horror film. If there can be any criticism of this thoroughly convincing staging, it’s perhaps that the multi-faceted nature of Monteverdi’s musical description is not quite integrated into the staging – for example in the unbelievably dramatic scene in which Orfeo discovers that Euridice is dead. In this way, one might surely be able to depict the conflicted nature of Orfeo with his various emotional battles.

Amongst the singers, Christian Gerhaher was outstanding. Whenever one watches Gerhaher, one always has the the impression of discovering the art of singing anew, and this performance was no exception. Like his late teacher Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Gerhaher sings with a combination of gripping concision and astonishing lightness that is a true revelation. Never exaggerated, always controlled and totally without affectation, his voice laughs, cries, moans and sobs that one feels like a child who has fallen under the spell of a teller of fairytales. It is a truly happy twist of musical fate that Gerhaher is also a talented actor on the operatic stage.

Aside from Gerhaher, the outstanding performers were Anna Virovlansky as Euridice, with her strongly expressive soprano, and Anna Bonitatibus, who brilliant brought to life the messenger and Prosperina. Especially in the aforementioned key scene in Act II, in which the messenger brings the news to a horrified Orfeo of the death of his beloved Euridice, Bonitatibus generated tension that was simply unbearable up to the moment where she announced “La tua diletta sposa è morta”. The modulations and sudden changes of harmony with which which Monteverdi endows this emotional roller-coaster ride, is one of the most horrifying passages in musical history. This performance brought to mind the astonishing passage in Schubert’s Erkönig with its similarly dry and fatalistic ending: “In his arms, the child – was dead”.

As both Speranza [hope] and La Musica, Angela Brower also excelled, both for her deeply felt singing and her intense stage presence. Amongst the other singers, foremost mention goes to Andrew Harris as the Lord of the Underworld. With his metallic, droning bass and his awkward gestures, he gave us a terrifying, abhorrent Pluto. The chorus, from the young Zürcher Singakademie, sang with ethereal lightness and great variety.

What an evening it was! The audience applauded with frenetic joy, giving three curtain calls with standing ovations for this exceptional opera production, which will remain long in the memory.

Translated from German by David Karlin