The cycle of the three Monteverdi operas -- L'Orfeo, Il ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria, and L'incoronazione di Poppea -- produced at the Zürich opera house in 1978, were historically important because Deutsche Grammophon's recordings were among the first video releases of the operas, with the result that broad audiences could see that these early Baroque operas had long been considered quaintly antiquated could in fact be dramatically compelling. The productions are likely to have less appeal to twenty first century audiences who have become accustomed to performances of considerably more musical, dramatic, and scenic sophistication. The artistic team of director and set designer Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, and costume designer Pet Halmen was responsible for the productions. The soundtracks for the operas were recorded at the Zürich Opera in 1977, and the filming was done the following year in Vienna, and while the coordination between sight and sound is good, there is little sense of spatial realism as the singers move around the stage. Ponnelle's lavish set designs evoke the aesthetic sensibilities that make it easy to imagine being in vogue in early seventeenth century Venice, as do Halmen's often quirky but sumptuous costume designs.
The orchestration of Orfeo is remarkably detailed for early Baroque opera, a virtual anomaly in a period in which most operas existed only in short score, with the vocal lines over a bass line, and with instrumental parts written out only in the purely instrumental sections, and Harnoncourt wisely sticks closely to Monteverdi's intentions. The Monteverdi-Ensemble des Opernhauses Zürich plays with spirit, if not with the interpretive freedom that tends to characterize more recent performances. The large cast is vocally strong and sings with bel canto fullness of tone, even though it lacks the command of early Baroque vocal production and ornamentation that audiences have since come to expect. As a purely musical experience, the opera is successful if taken on its own terms, and a CD release might well have been more persuasive than this DVD. Ponnelle's lavishly detailed sets are Baroque, in the literal original meaning of the term that came to be associated with the musical era -- absurdly, almost grotesquely ornate -- and the costumes by Halmen are essentially inspired by the Baroque period. Both designers go over the top scenically, and the effect can be wonderfully evocative (as in the luridly decorated third act, in which a genuinely scary Charon ferries groups of freakish wraiths across the Styx while Orfeo sings "Possente Spirto"), or just plain silly, for most of the rest of the opera. Orfeo's costume, consisting of a military breastplate above the waist, with what looks like a cheerleader's skirt and go-go boots below, is especially appalling. Ponnelle's dramatic conception has some interesting conceits (for instance, the chorus, in Baroque dress, is arrayed in a gallery around the stage, as the audience might have been in the original production), but in general his slack direction does the opera no favors. All emotions are expressed with the most clichéd exaggeration and involve an embarrassing amount of mugging. Particularly distressing is Ponnelle's penchant for having the orchestral musicians popping on-stage and cavorting around with the actors. The film editing is tone-deaf and amateurish, with camera shots so random and disjunctive and inelegant that it virtually destroys any sense of the opera's continuity. The DVD has documentary value, but primarily as a record of how far understanding of Monteverdi has come since the 1970s.