August 18, 2016

If Orfeo were a shaman... An aural and visual feast from l'Arpeggiata

Christina Pluhar and her Baroque band go deeper into the Orfeo myth than ever before on their new album.

Christina Pluhar and her ensemble L’Arpeggiata have made a speciality of fusing cultures and musical styles – as they have shown in a string of Erato albums, such as Mediterraneo, Via Crucis and Los Pajaros Perdidos. Now, with Orfeo Chamán (released in October 2016) they have moved into the world of opera by taking one of the most famous Ancient Greek myths, infusing it with spirituality drawn from Asia and the Native Americans, and giving it musical expression by blending Baroque and traditional styles and a contemporary idiom influenced by Latin American popular music.

With this Erato release, admirers of L’Arpeggiata can enjoy substantial highlights of Orfeo Chamán in audio form and also a DVD of the entire opera, recorded for video at the Teatro Mayor Julio Mario Santo Domingo in Bogotá, Colombia in November 2014, when it received its world premiere staging.

As Christina Pluhar has written: “The musical elements – like our story, with its combination of mythological elements from different periods and continents – navigate between musical cultures and centuries and combine to create something new and universal. I composed some pieces myself, while in others I reworked and arranged melodic or harmonic material from the Baroque period or from the traditional music of different cultures, and adapted it to fit the libretto.”

The libretto is by the Colombian poet Hugo Chaparro Valderrama. The story of Orpheus – the divinely gifted musician who visits Hades in a bold attempt to retrieve his dead beloved, Eurydice – has, of course, been treated by such composers as Monteverdi, Gluck, Offenbach and Harrison Birtwistle.

Pluhar explains that, “in Orfeo Chamán, we have woven Greek and pre-Columbian mythology together and incorporated shamanic rituals into the story of Orpheus.” Shamanism (still found in Eastern Europe, Asia, the Americas, Australia, sub-Saharan Africa and Oceania) is based on the belief that – like humans – animals, plants, rocks and water possess a soul. A shaman acquires the capacity to travel between different worlds and communicate with spirits, and in Orfeo Chamán, Orpheus takes a shamanic journey to another world to recover a lost soul. He is accompanied by his nahual, or guardian spirit – here in the form of a jaguar, the Latin American spotted panther. This Orpheus is a poet, magician and religious teacher, and, like the Orpheus of Greek myth, he can entrance the birds and beasts with his music.

The Teatro Mayor Julio Mario Santo Domingo invited the Colombian-Swiss stage directors Rolf and Heidi Abderhalden to produce an opera at the theatre and the Abderhaldens invited Christina Pluhar to work on the project – originally conceived as a production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, but soon becoming the creation of a new work. For the leading role, Pluhar chose a performer from the world of popular music, the young Argentinian singer and guitarist Nahuel Pennisi. Something of a real-life Orfeo, he has been blind since birth and has used music as a way of exploring and interacting with his environment.

Pennisi plays his guitar not against his torso but across his lap, almost like a zither. As Pluhar says, “With his emotional voice and his unique guitar technique, Nahuel opens our ears to a new world – without the need for stage effects. He sings the music as if he just composed it himself, and the text as if it came straight from his heart.”

The other singers are classically trained vocalists, experts in the Baroque style, who are also comfortable with singing popular music: “Our cast’s vocal and technical flexibility enabled me to incorporate a variety of musical styles in the work that were suited to the voice of the singer concerned, to the character of the role, to the expression of the text or to the atmosphere of the situation,” says Pluhar. They are joined by a company of actors and dancers for a musically and scenically colourful spectacle – haunting, exhilarating and moving.

Orfeo Chamán is available in a special CD/DVD edition in October.