If any singer was destined to play Monteverdi’s Orfeo, a character who embodies the power of song, it is Christian Gerhaher. The German baritone has already conquered the world’s recital halls, thanks to his command of the German Lied, but his opera performances have been relatively few. That may be changing: fame has given him the right to dictate terms, and it would be a foolish opera manager who said no to any Gerhaher wish. He has just done Don Giovanni in Frankfurt and now comes the title role in Monteverdi’s favola in musica, centrepiece of the Munich Opera Festival.
Whether Gerhaher is a match for Mozart’s libertine can be debated, but he seems nothing short of ideal for Monteverdi’s poet-in-song. The part demands poise and contained passion, and Gerhaher has both. It needs a voice of weightless beauty and eloquent tone – and Gerhaher has that too. The sounds he produces make you forget he is actually singing, so direct is his communication, so intelligent his projection. A bonus in this performance, in contrast to some of his Lieder interpretations, was the lack of artifice: he stood, he moved, he delivered as if the motivation came from deep within. Listening to his “Possente spirto”, the opera’s central aria, it was difficult to believe this music was written 407 years ago.
That impression was reinforced by a staging – directed by David Bösch and designed by Patrick Bannwart and Falko Herold – that came across as simple and atmospheric, light and serious, timeless and modern. What we saw were characters of our time in mythical settings: the stage, framed by the Prinzregententheater’s intimate amphitheatre, became anything and everything the imagination told us it was. The Act One wedding party centred round a clapped-out camper van beneath suspended flower petals. Hades was a Lord of the Rings underworld. The finale found the party-goers resuming their casual frolics while Orfeo and Euridice, reunited, retreated to the grave: life ends, life goes on.
Not everyone declaimed the words with Gerhaher’s style and conviction, but there were notable contributions from Anna Bonitatibus (Messenger/Proserpina) and the Bavarian State Opera’s 23-piece baroque instrumental ensemble, fluently conducted by Ivor Bolton.