The Santa Fe Opera in New Mexico has given Monteverdi’s “L’Orfeo” a subtle yet significant transformation this summer, now simply known as “Orfeo.” This minor change is unlikely to cause a stir, much like the modernized presentation of the opera itself, which first premiered in 1607 and is the oldest surviving opera still regularly performed.
This rendition of “Orfeo” debuted on July 29, marking the final opening of Santa Fe Opera’s five summer productions. Despite being a newcomer to the stage here, it has quickly become the highlight of the company’s current offerings.
The opening night of “Orfeo” saw baritone Luke Sutliff step into the title role, impressing with his assured interpretation, stage presence, and ability to master the complex movements of Sharon’s production on short notice. The audience was treated to Monteverdi’s score even before they had settled into their seats, with small brass ensembles playing the opening Toccata of the opera from different corners of the Crosby Theater campus.
Once the performance began in earnest, Monteverdi’s music was given a new lease of life through Muhly’s orchestration. Muhly’s version of the score is notable for its unobtrusive nature, often sounding like the familiar “L’Orfeo” but with subtle adjustments and added flourishes in his own style.
The production, directed by Yuval Sharon, the artistic director of Detroit Opera and founder of the innovative company the Industry in Los Angeles, is a testament to his imaginative approach. His staging of “Orfeo” is a complex and sleek interpretation that brings out a timeless idea from the tale.
The story of Orfeo unfolds as a celebration of music and its power to evoke both joy and sorrow. After Orfeo’s journey to the Underworld and the subsequent permanent death of Euridice, her voice is heard through a gramophone held by Orfeo, a poignant reminder of the power of music to amplify our emotions.
The production also includes comedic elements and a celebration of community and music in an idyllic society devoid of ideology. The spirit of the performance turned from jubilant to assertive during the second performance, as the theater’s surroundings rumbled with thunder and the sunset was obscured by streaks of rain in the distance.
Despite some vocal challenges, Rolando Villazón’s performance as Orfeo was charismatic and engaging. The Santa Fe Opera Orchestra, under Harry Bicket’s baton, brought a lively and energetic interpretation of “Orfeo” to the stage.
The season also saw other notable performances, including Samantha Hankey’s portrayal of Mélisande in Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande,” and standout performances by Nicholas Brownlee in Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman” and Ailyn Pérez in “Rusalka.”
While not all performances hit the mark, such as the “Tosca” production, the season overall demonstrated that it is possible to present opera with both reverence and a touch of modern style. The best example of this was the fresh interpretation of “Orfeo.”