If the legendary ancient Greek singer Orpheus were alive today he would be an opera singer, right?
Well, not exactly. He would sing like an opera singer, but he would look, dress and act like a rock star, and his beautiful bride Eurydice would be a spaced-out groupie.
At least that’s how they were presented in 2005 by the Frankfurt Opera at their alternative venue Bockenheimer Depot, in a new production of what was probably the world’s first full-scale opera, L’Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643).
When Orpheus had sung his way into the underworld to rescue the dead Eurydice (actually he gained entrance by hitting Caronte on the head with his electric guitar, but never mind), he was greeted with grins and hand-slapping by the ghosts of several of his dead rock-star colleagues, or rather by evil spirits holding masks in front of their faces to make them easily recognizable as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, Jim Morrison, John Lennon and Elvis Presley, among others.
This was inevitably a somewhat controversial interpretation of a baroque opera that dates from the year 1607, but I thought it worked really well, and in the two performances I saw the audience was highly enthusiastic.
For this production, the orchestra was in the middle, inside a revolving circular stage where most of the action took place. Seating for the audience was on bleachers at the front and back of the hall. The cast included Christian Gerhaher as Orfeo and Magnus Baldvinsson as Caronte, with Florian Plock, Nidia Palacios, Britta Stallmeister, Anna Ryberg, Nathaniel Webster, Ralph Simon and Michael McCown in other roles. These are all names that will be very familiar to long-time Frankfurt opera goers.
L’Orfeo was the first Frankfurt production by the German-French stage director David Hermann, who has since returned to Frankfurt several times to stage operas by Monteverdi, Ravel, de Falla, Charpentier, Krenek and Janáček. I have also seen three of his opera productions at the Opéra national de Lorraine in Nancy, France.
In 2017 David Hermann came as a guest to my German-language opera appreciation course Opern-Gespräche, where he spent an entire evening talking with us and answering our questions.
My photos in this post are from 2005. I revised the text in 2018.