January 17, 2018

Princeton University Opera Theater Presents Authentic Performance of Baroque Opera

By Nancy Plum

Students at Princeton University have an incredibly diverse range of choices for musical experiences on campus. One of the most challenging this year was the opera class Music 219, in which music majors and non-majors joined together to explore a single theme or production. As described by Humanities Council Visiting Lecture Thomas Guthrie, co-teacher of Music 219, this year’s class was “all about exploring what it’s like to be in an opera.” The 30 students who participated in the class performed the resulting operatic project this past weekend at Richardson Auditorium. Guthrie and University Director of Choral Activities Gabriel Crouch (also co-teacher of Music 219) led the students through a staged production in Italian (with English super-titles) of what is considered the first fully-developed opera — Claudio Monteverdi’s 1607 L’Orfeo. Friday night’s performance (the opera was repeated Saturday night) showed both the depth of the class and how even those who are not studying music extensively can rise to a challenge. 

Opera as a form evolved from the 16th-century intermedio — a long musical interlude presented between acts of a play. By 1600 Monteverdi was employed in the Mantua court of Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga, who was particularly interested in the prestige attached to promoting the new musical form of opera, and it was for this court that Monteverdi created L’Orfeo. Composed in five short acts, L’Orfeo was based on the Greek legend of Orpheus’s descent to the underworld to retrieve his beloved bride Euridice. For this performance, Guthrie and Crouch recreated an early 17th-century operatic experience, including the use of period instruments and a stark theatrical set which allowed the audience to focus on the music.

Monteverdi’s score blends numerous compositional devices available at the time, including arias, strophic sings, dance, and recitative. The composer indicated an accompanying ensemble of 41 instruments, and as was customary for the time, presenters of the opera are free to make their own decisions about instrumental forces. Crouch elected to use 26 musicians, with such period instruments as sackbuts and chitarrone adding authenticity and a unique musical flavor not often heard in Richardson Auditorium.

L’Orfeo opens in the pastoral setting of Thrace, at the wedding of Orfeo and Euridice. Director Guthrie took the opera one theatrical step further from the original with the incorporation of masks and puppets, which were held by the singers and manipulated to express appropriate emotions. Created by Rui Rodrigues, the puppets were eerily lifelike and ghostly. Tenor Sebastian Cox, a University senior singing the role of Orfeo, was especially adept at bringing his puppet to life. As a singer, Cox was very strong, and communicated particularly well with the audience and fellow performers from throughout the stage. His role often contained passages of very fast-moving words, which Cox had no trouble conveying in the hall. Although dramatically quite important, Euridice is not a large role vocally, but requires a voice expressing deep emotion. Soprano Shruthi Rajasekar sang Friday night (the role was double-cast) with a solid vocal presence which matched Orfeo well.

The minor characters of the opera, some of whom were sung by members of the chorus in this production, carried much of the dramatic action of the evening, and their contributions often belied the small size of their roles. Two particularly impressive “shepherds” were Jonathan Makepeace and Jay Lee, who frequently commented on the story with voices which blended together well, often with a light accompaniment of recorders and the theorbo-like chitarrone. Bass Damien Capelle sang the patriarchal role of Pluto cleanly, joined by Kaamya Varagur singing the role of his wife, Proserpina. Introducing the opera in a spirited prologue were sopranos (and sisters) Sarah and Solène Le Van. Solène in particular sang with a rich and impassioned voice, while Sarah was equally at home in the early baroque style.

The orchestra compiled for this performance was split on two sides of a stage extension through the middle of the audience, with the pastoral instruments representing Thrace — violins, recorders, and harpsichord — on one side and the brass and lower string instruments of Hades on the other. Crouch stood in between and easily led both halves of the orchestra and all singers onstage through the score. Most unique in the instrumentation were the baroque trumpets, sackbuts, and cornetti playing from various points throughout the hall. This ensemble opened and closed the opera well with joyous fanfares. Continuo parts had a solid foundation in Sergio de Iudicibus and Wendy Young sharing responsibility on harpsichord and Kerry Heimann playing a portable regal organ. The chorus, which closed each act of the opera, found a good range of dynamics in different scenes, producing quite a full sound when necessary.

Music 219 may have been a university class, but its “final exam” was a slick and professional-level opera, with the same attention to detail that one would expect from a high-level performance.