OPERA GETS its turn at the Galway International Arts Festival tonight and tomorrow at 8pm when Atalante and Resurgam combine to present Luigi Rossi’s Orfeo at St Nicholas’s Collegiate Church.
Orfeo, a ‘tragicomedy in music’, was first performed in 1647 in Paris. Its audience numbered, not only leading members of the French court, but two young royal guests - the nine-year-old Louis XIV, and Louis’ elder cousin Prince Charles, later Charles II of England, sheltering from the English Civil War. Also present was the man who commissioned the work, Cardinal Mazarin, chief minister of France.
It was the first opera specially composed for Parisian audiences and it was on a lavish scale. It took 200 carpenters to build the huge sets, while the production featured 27 solo roles, lasted more than six hours and cost the equivalent of €20 million to stage.
A dramatic take on the story
Erin Headley’s ensemble Atalante and Mark Duley’s choir Resurgam are both renowned for their superb treatment of music from the 17th century and thus make an ideal partnership to stage Rossi’s baroque opera.
“This is only the second time we’ve collaborated,” Duley tells me ahead of Orfeo’s opening. “The first time was last year at the Galway Early Music Festival. That went so well we thought it would be great to do something on a slightly larger scale - though it has turned out to be on a considerably larger scale!
“After last year’s show, Erin Headley and I put our heads together to come up with something and after settling on Orfeo we approached both the Arts Council and Galway International Arts Festival about a partnership and both of them agreed to come on board.”
The Orpheus myth has, unsurprisingly, inspired many musical treatments. Duley describes Rossi’s interpretation.
“It’s a very dramatic and immediate take on the story,” he states. “There is a lot of recitative so that gives it an immediacy in terms of getting the story across and it’s very dynamic. It also has some wonderful set-pieces. One of its differences from other settings is that the arias are very much integrated with the recitatives, they grow out of them. In later operatic styles you have recitative and then it will hold fire while somebody sings about something for five minutes or so; in Rossi the aria is quite short it’s all very much integrated and it has tremendous dramatic drive.
“The other big difference would be tied up with the style of the time, the continuo part -which would be the bass line and the harmony of the bass line. There are quite a few instruments, there’s a harpsichord, a lirone, a chittarone which is like a big lute, and there’s a harp so the bass-line is quite different to what you would hear in other treatments.”
Luigi Rossi was one of the leading Italian composers of his day. Born in Puglia around 1598, by 1620 he was established in Rome. In 1627 he married the harpist Costanza de Ponte, another leading musician of the era. Both husband and wife were much in demand throughout Italy and beyond. In 1646 he moved to Paris where Cardinal Mazarin commissioned him to compose Orfeo.
Rossi’s arias are melodically suave and captivating; his vocal ensembles rich with sinewy lines enveloped by sumptuous harmonies; and his recitative built upon the earlier Monteverdian style of expressive setting for individual words. Rossi was among those who transformed recitative into a new musical and emotional outpouring that would be subsequently be described as ‘Baroque’.
“Rossi’s Orfeo is not performed very often,” Duley notes. “Other settings of the story by Gluck and Monteverdi would be more familiar, the latter of course is from a similar period to Rossi’s. While Rossi is not nearly as well known as those I do think he deserves to be much better known. I believe people will be really drawn into the story and the whole opera is enthralling.”
Costumes and lirone
Mark Duley was born in New Zealand, and came to Ireland in 1992. One of Ireland’s foremost choral specialists, he has held such major posts as chorusmaster to the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir and artistic director of the Irish Baroque Orchestra. He established the Resurgam choir in 2003, which is now widely acknowledged as one of the country’s most accomplished vocal ensembles.
Even before she founded Atalante five years ago, Erin Headley was already pre-eminent in the field of early music, appearing on more than 100 albums. She is particularly revered as the world’s leading authority on the lirone, that hauntingly beautiful bowed instrument which has been her domain since 1980 when she was the only lirone player in the world. Her award-winning Atalante ensemble is named in honour of Leonardo da Vinci’s friend and pupil Atalante Migliorotti, who invented the lirone, or 12-string lyre, in 1505. The lirone features prominently in Orfeo, as Mark Duley reveals.
“There is a lot to look out for in the production,” he says. “I’ve already mentioned the richness of the continuo, the various bass instruments. We also have the lirone which is a speciality of Atalante, Erin Headley is one of the people who has revived the instrument. It comes into play at a key moment during the opera. It plays chords unlike other bowed instruments which play one note or maybe two. It has been described as ‘an organ with a brain’ and it creates a fantastic effect and really heightens the drama as well.”
What about the ‘look’ of the production? “It’s in St Nicholas’s Church so the staging itself will be quite plain with minimal props,” Duley replies. “The richness visually is in the costumes, they are very painterly and they are based on images from paintings of the time which tell us a lot about the kinds of things people would have worn, and worn on stage. They are wonderful and fabulously made, they are very layered, intricate in some cases, gaudy in others. They reveal a lot about the characters and what’s going on as well.”
Orfeo features Lucia Cirillo in the title role and Nadile Balbeisi as Euridice. Both are members of Atalante. For tickets see www.giaf.com