Nederlandse Opera's production of L'Orfeo (part of its complete Monteverdi cycle, including a staged version of Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda) is especially notable for the stunning visual elements that create unforgettable stage pictures and delve deeply into the opera's complex psychology: the grief-stricken Orfeo carrying Euridice's body across a sylvan pond, laying her in the chasm that would be her grave, and then descending into the chasm himself on his journey to the underworld; the moment when Orfeo, having lulled Caronte to sleep, steps into the Styx and the river erupts into flame; and the opera's closing, in which Orfeo is surrounded by a dazzling display of shooting stars. Michael Simon's single, versatile set, dominated by a large body of (real) water, aptly conveys the pastoral beauty and tranquility of the first two acts as well as the stark desolation of the Styx and of Hades in the third and fourth, and the transcendence of the fifth. The ensembles Tragicomedia and Concerto Palatino, led by Stephen Stubbs, perform with depth and liveliness, and offer plenty of momentum to drive the action.
The smaller roles are for the most part are well taken. In particular, countertenor David Cordier as La Musica, mezzo-soprano Brigitte Balleys as La Messagiera, bass Mario Luperi as Caronte, mezzo-soprano Suzie LeBlanc as Ninfa, and soprano Bernarda Fink as Prosperpina are strikingly effective, both vocally and dramatically. Fink's Prosperpina, trapped as the Queen of the Underworld, conveys her fear of her husband, her sympathy for (and visceral attraction to) Orfeo, and her grief at his failure to save Euridice in the opera's most convincing and deeply felt performance. The production's weakest links are the male leads. John Mark Ainsley as Orfeo is vocally entirely successful; his "Possente Spirto" is a marvel of passion and coloratura virtuosity. Dramatically, though, he lacks the charisma to make Orfeo into the believably magnetic personality that inspires the devotion and intense admiration of the rest of the characters. A similar problem affects Dean Robinson as Plutone and Russell Smythe as Apollo; they sing beautifully, but lack the gravitas to come across as convincing deities. (Luperi's Caronte, in contrast, is genuinely awe-inspiring.) Even though having a dramatically weak Orfeo diminishes the production's overall effectiveness, director Pierre Audi's psychologically profound direction, the gorgeous visual imagery, and the other strong performances make this a version that any lover of Monteverdi and of Baroque opera will want to investigate.