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Baroque composer Claudio Monteverdi and librettist Alessandro Stringio’s 1607 opera L’Orfeo may not be the oldest opera in the western classical tradition, but it is the oldest one still regularly performed. The opera is based on the best known story of Greek mythological hero and prophet Orpheus: His journey to the underworld to bring his wife Eurydice back to the world of the living. It’s possible Monteverdi identified with the Thracian bard’s grief: The same year he composed L’Orfeo, his wife, the singer Claudia de Cattaneis, died.
IN Series’ The Nightsong of Orpheus is not a traditional L’Orfeo scaled down to the Source Theatre (it will move to the appropriately subterranean Dupont Underground for its second weekend before transferring to Baltimore Theater Project). Stage and musical director Timothy Nelson has conceived it as a collaboration with Theatre Nohgaku, an American company that specializes in presenting both traditional Noh theater in English as well as creating new American repertoire with the Noh aesthetic, resulting in a hybrid performance. The combination of such different artistic traditions may seem strange, with their radically different musical styles and modes of presentation, but once one recalls that supernatural stories of spirits existing in that liminal place between life and death are a significant part of the Noh repertoire, the story of Orpheus (in most performances played by tenor Tony Boutté) is a fitting subject.
The stage is a narrow elevated alley. The floor is covered with paper, suggesting impermanence, with wavy lines invoking both the current of the River Styx and the furrows of sand raked into a Zen garden (Debra Kim Sivigny has designed both the set and the costumes). Noh actor Akira Matsui steps onto the stage in a voluminous white silk robe called a shozuku, chants his introduction, and sets the stage for Noh acting style: A sliding step that allows the actor to move both slowly and swiftly while keeping his upper torso perfectly immobile, allowing for the slightest tilt of the head or flick of the hand to take on the greatest dramatic impact. Meanwhile the chorus sings one of the movements of Monteverdi’s Vespers (translated into Japanese by Eiki Isomura), a suite he composed for the liturgy of the sundown mass, culminating in a “Hallelujah!” Orpheus presents Matsui with a mask representing the muse, Music and he straps it one: Noh does not conceal its theatricality, and its actors play both male and female roles. Matsui similarly plays the goddess Hope, and in the closing scene, Orpheus’ divine father, the sun god, Apollo (Monteverdi and Stringio were clearly playing with a syncretic mixture of Christian and classical themes).
As scholar Carrie J. Preston (who has also collaborated with Nohgaku) notes in her book Learning to Kneel: Noh, Modernism, and Journeys in Teaching, there has been a history of western theater artists and Japanese Noh artists collaborating and drawing upon each other’s repertoire and techniques for over a century, on a level that is too intimate and too complex to be simply dismissed as cultural appropriation.
The Nightsong of Orpheus is in that tradition of collaboration and cross-fertilization, not limited to Matsui’s presence as a guest artist: Nohgaku’s Jubilith Moore has coached the opera performers to move like Noh actors. This is done gorgeously when the Thracian chorus of the opening act transition from a frolicking dance similar to that one might see in a more traditional L’Orfeo, as they introduce stillness and dress Eurydice (Mara Yaffee), covering her simple Thracian tunic and pants with the shozuku and tie it with an obi before she straps on a mask. Mask-maker Kitazawa Hideta has modified the traditional Noh mask, which is carved from a single block of wood and covers the entire face, by leaving the opera singers’ mouth and jaw exposed, allowing their voices to project freely.
The INnovātiō Baroque Orchestra is joined by Nohgaku’s Richard Emmert on taiko drum, and bamboo flute, accenting plucked and bowed strings that define Monteverdi’s score without overpowering the vocalists.
Of course, the rustic celebration is just a prelude to death, loss, and grief, and Orpheus’ descent into the underworld in the evening’s second act. Christopher Cowell’s translation of the L’Orfeo libretto helps underline some of Stringio’s deliberate allusions to Dante for the English-speaking audience and, but it is also a moment for spectacle: Long swaths of black silk become the waters of the River Styx shimmering under Paul Callahan’s LED lights. Orpheus’ negotiations with Hades’ rulers, Pluto (Robin McGinness) and Proserpina (Janna Kritz), dressed in their dark silk robes with garlands of purple blossoms that are as striking visually as they are musically.
The pairing of these two centuries-old performing art forms is both a remarkable spectacle but also a meditation on mythology and grief.
The Nightsong of Orpheus transfers to Dupont Underground Sept. 16–18. It will then move to the Baltimore Theater Project Sept. 23–25. $35–$55. inseries.org.