Landmark Monteverdi opera staged in Great Barrington

Boston Early Music Festival stages the five-act opera "L'Orfeo" by Monteverdi.
Aaron Sheehan (Orfeo), Mireille Asselin (Euridice), and the BEMF Chamber Ensemble; Photo by Kathy Wittman
Aaron Sheehan (Orfeo), Mireille Asselin (Euridice), and the BEMF Chamber Ensemble; Photo by Kathy Wittman

Claudio Monteverdi was a budding composer of songs in his early 20s when he was hired to play violin in the Duke of Mantua’s court orchestra.

He hardly imagined that the music he would one day compose to a libretto written by his violin buddy Alessandro Striggio would come to be considered the world’s first permanent work in the opera repertoire and give him eternal fame. After all, their effort, “L’Orfeo,” was to be performed only for the annual Carnival of 1607.

“It was an experiment,” said Gilbert Blin, who will direct Boston Early Music Festival’s production on Sunday. “They presented it as a workshop for their patron to a gentlemen’s club of intelligentsia and clergy. It got an unprecedented and overwhelming response.”

The opera is in five acts with a prologue and lasts about two hours. It was a defining piece in the history of opera, Blin said. Before “L’Orfeo,” text was the priority, but Monteverdi had become intrigued with the uses of basso continuo (the bass line) and counterpoint to support lyrics. He was also working in a hugely supportive environment.

Boston Early Music Festival

WHEN: Saturday, 8 p.m. “Vespers of 1610”; Sunday, 3 p.m. “L’Orfeo”

WHERE: Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, 14 Castle St., Great Barrington, Mass.

HOW MUCH: Saturday: $70, $50, $25; Sunday: $85, $55, $25

MORE INFO: 413-528-0100,

“He had a wonderfully educated, fantastic patron in Francesco [the 21-year old son of the reigning Duke of Vincenzo] who trusted his musicians and didn’t interfere like many other monarchs,” Blin said. “Francesco was very experimental and most unusual.”

Mantua and the Florentine court, where his brother Ferdinand ruled, had a healthy rivalry as to who could stage the most splendid spectacle at Carnival time. So it didn’t take much to sell Francesco on this ambitious “play in music.” (“Opera’s First Master: The Musical Dramas of Claudio Monteverdi” Mark Ringer, Amadeus Press, 2006)

The subject of the opera was equally forward-looking.

“The myth of Orpheus is one of the most famous myths of antiquity,” Blin said. “But they did not want to dilute the story by being too long or spending time on issues. Rather, they tried to create a more refined, elevated experience.”

Adding to the novelty was that the singers all memorized their parts rather than use scores, which were usually given to the audience to follow along. After the shock of the first performance, the Duke opened the doors to the ladies of the city with a more lavish performance.

“All felt the universality of the piece,” Blin said.

Rather than build sets, Blin will use the theater’s space the way Monteverdi might have and will put the 21-piece orchestra, which includes all the instruments in a 17th century palace orchestra, on stage. The show will be sung in Italian with English supertitles.

“It will be a lavish sound,” Blin said.

Anna Watkins oversees the 25 costumes and masks for nine singers and one dancer. Because this is a revival of the 2012 Boston production, most will come from the company’s closets.

“It will be like getting dressed in the morning pulling a look together,” Watkins said.

“It will be a 17th century look in earthy colors. What’s different is that we’re using flat shoes with no heels because there’s a lot of dancing. And I designed the skull masks for the underworld. It’s not a simple show to put on. It must look like magic.”

On Saturday, BEMF will present Monteverdi’s “Vespers of 1610.” Pre-concert talks are given one hour before concert time for both events.

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