“Worthy of eternal glory / Will be he who has victory over himself.” Those lines, which conclude Act 4 of Claudio Monteverdi’s music drama “Orfeo,” encapsulate the composer’s take on the Greek myth in which Orpheus is permitted to retrieve his just-deceased bride-to-be, Euridice, from Hades on condition that he not look back at her as she follows him on their way out. He does not have victory over himself: He has to look to reassure himself that she’s there, and so loses her forever.
“Orfeo” was first presented in 1607, in a room of the ducal palace in Mantua, and the ambience of that premiere was re-created by the Boston Early Music Festival’s two semi-staged chamber-opera performances at Jordan Hall over Thanksgiving weekend. The 17 instrumentalists, led by BEMF artistic codirectors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, were arranged in a divided semicircle center stage. The vocal ensemble entered stage right in black cloaks and hats, and trundling a prop cart, as if they had just arrived at the palace. Soon they were ready to begin, La Musica (Mireille Asselin) in a kind of half-mask tiara, expounding the Prologue from the back of the stage, Orfeo (Aaron Sheehan) in a belted white tunic over white leggings, donning a laurel wreath and kneeling before her.