Claudio Monteverdi’s 1607 L’Orfeo – a seminal work in the development of opera – found a ravishing realization in the post-modernist choreographer Trisha Brown’s production, recently imported to bam. (It was initiated by Brussels’s Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie and has played in both France and England, where government-supported sites treat music and dancing as essential to the nation’s well-being; in the States, it was made possible by the tobacco folks.) Brown’s partners in the undertaking were the Concerto Vocale and the Collegium Vocale, under the baton of René Jacobs; Brown’s own group of dancers; and the designer Roland Aeschlimann, who creates an earthly paradise, a celestial heaven, and a Stygian netherworld with Bauhaus starkness, and whose costumes – simple, handsome, and ingenious – simultaneously evoke antique times, seventeenth-century art, and today’s cutting edge.
A mood of magical lyricism is introduced with the performance’s very first image – an airborne nymph, softly soaring and tumbling through the sky, the age-old theatrical craft of flying bodies on wires here given new eloquence. Monteverdi’s incarnation of the Orpheus and Eurydice legend – which segues from pastoral romance to tragedy to moral lesson to ecstatic epiphany – is seamlessly handled, with singers and dancers so integrated in their stylized gestures and linear and curving group formations that one can barely discern at times which person practices which art. The singers move with unusual facility and confidence; the baritone, Simon Keenlyside, as Orfeo is a paragon of physical dignity and grace. The scope of the movement is strictly calibrated so that the more complex, vigorous material executed only by the dancers springs as naturally from the basic choreography as aria does from recitative.
Everything Brown has done here that’s wonderful relates to an aspect of her ongoing history as an artist with a stubborn, singular vision. The aerial work, obviously, stems from her “equipment pieces,” in which bodies were rigged to walk on walls; the shifting, peeling-off lines come from her couldn’t-be-more-prosaic “task dances” and their juicier successors; the hieratic gestures that transmute uncannily into signs embodying feeling are cousins to Brown’s ventures into “dancing and talking.” Most wonderful is the fact that, sophisticated as this production is, it retains an essential childlike quality. It seems to have come into being from a rich, ingenuous imagination to which all events and visions are possible and, indeed, capable of being realized through the simplest of means.