“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.
At two hours and 15 minutes (which included a 20-minute intermission), this was a fleet “Orfeo,” short on draggy vocal display, long on drama and feeling. I was startled by the energy the Nymphs and Shepherds put into their chorus “Vieni, Imeneo, deh, vieni” (“Come, Hymen, oh come”), which usually sounds like a hymn. I was pleased by the care the instrumental ensemble took to vary the sensibility of the ritornellos in between La Musica’s vocal stanzas. The action took place all around the instrumentalists (which had the effect of integrating them) and also on risers behind them. Even as Orfeo was, in the second act, singing of his joy at having won Euridice (Asselin), we could see her, as she gathered flowers, getting bitten by a snake and dying in the arms of her friend Silvia (Shannon Mercer).
The concept — Gilbert Blin, who staged Monteverdi’s “L’incoronazione di Poppea” for BEMF in 2009, was again the director — did raise some questions. There’s no reason a soprano can’t sing both La Musica and Euridice, as Asselin did here, but the doubling posits Euridice as Orfeo’s muse, or his music, rather than a flesh-and-blood woman whose second chance at life he tosses away. A masked Carlos Fittante appeared in various guises — Hymen, Pan, Amor, Thanatos — but the precision of his Baroque dancing jarred with the enjoyably country-casual style of Orfeo, Euridice, and the Nymphs and Shepherds.
The ending was also a bit of a puzzle. In the 1607 libretto (for which the score does not survive), Orfeo is torn to pieces by Bacchanti, as if he were being torn by his emotions. By 1609, Monteverdi’s drama had acquired a new ending in which Orfeo is given immortal life and taken up into heaven by Apollo because there’s no place for him on Earth. That’s what was presented here, so it was odd to see everyone cavorting lustily in the finale; you would think Euridice had been restored to life.
Still, from Sheehan’s mature, resonant Orfeo to Asselin’s vibrant La Musica and Euridice, Mercer’s impassioned Silvia, Ryland Angel’s agitated Speranza, Douglas Williams’s stern Charonte, Olivier Laquerre’s mournful Plutone, Teresa Wakim’s ingratiating Proserpina, and Jason McStoots’s light-filled Apollo, BEMF’s “Orfeo” was equally rewarding as music and drama. Performances of this caliber deserved an upbeat finish.