A young student approaches Northwestern University’s arts center at the beginning of Orfeo Remote, a thoroughly modernized, virtual interpretation of the historic Claudio Monteverdi opera L’Orfeo. Finding the doors locked because of COVID-19 restrictions, she heads home and texts her musician friends in “let’s put on a show” fashion.
The result can reasonably lay claim to being the first five-part digital opera mini-series that updates an early 17th century opera. Based on the Greek tragedy of the poet Orpheus and his cruelly ill-fated love Eurydice, Orfeo resets the scene to the hippie era of the 1960s.
The production was led by two faculty members at Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music: Joachim Schamberger, director of opera, and Stephen Alltop, senior lecturer of conducting and ensembles. Individual viewers may quibble with some of the creative choices, but the technical achievement of Orfeo is worth saluting and watching.
While Orfeo is set 50 years ago, Schamberger said it relates to the dilemma of musicians during the pandemic, as live performances vanished. “‘Orfeo’ is a story about loss, fear and taking initiative,” Schamberger said. “In this regard it reflects our current experience in society, and for artists in particular. The temporary suspension of the arts in performance is an enormous loss, and fear of how it may come back is in the minds of the entire artistic community.”
Set entirely on location and following COVID social distancing practices, the virtual opera was stitched together (according to the producers) from 1,400 individual audio tracks and 1,300 video tracks of 60 performers. What’s more, there are two different versions of the production, “Blue Cast” and “Green Cast,” with different performers in key roles.
The opening segment, titled “A Hipple Wedding,” launched Friday and is available for viewing on YouTube at no cost. The following segments, with launch dates, are “A Horrible Accident” (January 22), “A Trip to Hell” (January 29), “A Second Chance” (February 5), and “A Way to Heaven” (February 12).
Since it is hard to have spoilers on an opera first presented more than 400 years ago, we can say that Orfeo retains the score and story line of the 1607 original.
Orfeo (Orpheus), a poet and singer of legend in Ancient Greece, emerges from a long period of depression after the beautiful Eurydice pledges her love. In the joyous opening, Orfeo and Eurydice sing of their love, and other performers celebrate Orfeo’s revival. Then, setting the tone for hundreds of subsequent operas, the mood quickly shifts to despair: Eurydice is bitten by a poisonous snake and dies instantly.
Declaring that his heart has died, Orfeo goes to the Underworld to try to bring her back, tricks the ferryman at the River Styx, beseeches the god Pluto (Hades) to have mercy, comes so close to success but blows it, then accepts the invitation of the god Apollo to leave life and go to heaven so he can see Eurydice’s image in the stars.
The opening of Orfeo follows close to form (the actors in “A Hippie Wedding” appeared to have fun imitating youths of their Baby Boomer, um, grandparents’ era). The plot twists dramatically by Part 3. In the original L’Orfeo, the goddess Speranza (hope) leads Orfeo to the gates of Hell. In Orfeo, the protagonist goes to an alley where he meets Speranza, a hard-bitten dealer who sells Orfeo a powerful drug — which she says will enable him to pursue his mission — that he injects and passes out.
It is not clear whether Orfeo’s trip to Hell, meeting with the gods, brief reuniting with Eurydice, and ascendance to heaven are real or a drug-induced hallucination. There are also trippy references to the Apollo 11 moon landing, President Richard Nixon and the horrors of the Vietnam War that some viewers might find forced.
But what you get for the 2-1/2 hours of total viewing time over five weeks are beautiful young voices, eager (if raw) acting skills, and a virtuoso effort at digital story-telling.
Orfeo is free to watch on YouTube. Click here to go to the La Musica page (La Musica is a character who sings a brief narration at the start of each of the five episodes). Click the “Subscribe” button to get notified of the posting of each new installment, or just revisit whenever you like. The first installment, “A Hippie Wedding,” was posted on January 15, to be followed on January 22 with “A Horrible Accident,” on January 29 with “A Trip to Hell,” “on February 5 with “A Second Chance,” and on February 12 with the final segment, “A Way to Heaven.”