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Pegasus Early Music’s ‘L’Orfeo’ finds a muse in the pandemic

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The first thing audiences will notice about Pegasus Early Music’s production of Claudio Monteverdi’s 1607 music drama “L’Orfeo” — perhaps the most important opera ever written — are the sounds coming from the chamber orchestra.

There is the somber sound of the cornetto, a woodwind instrument that can sound like a human voice. There is no contemporary guitar, but rather a small lute and the towering, unwieldy theorbo. The harpsichord stands in for the piano. Together they make for a more intimate sound.
Ben David Aronson, Liza Malamut, Jared Wallis, Garrett Lahr, and Erik Schmalz play baroque trumpets in Pegasus Early Music's production of "L'Orfeo." - PHOTO BY GERRY SZYMANSKI
  • PHOTO BY GERRY SZYMANSKI
  • Ben David Aronson, Liza Malamut, Jared Wallis, Garrett Lahr, and Erik Schmalz play baroque trumpets in Pegasus Early Music's production of "L'Orfeo."
The opera, which runs Friday through Sunday at JCC’s Hart Theater, plays on the tragic Greek myth of the newly married Orfeo and Euridice, who are separated when Euridice dies from a snakebite. Orfeo, a demigod and legendary musician, descends to Hades to rescue Euridice from death using his otherworldly musical ability.

More than 400 years later, the emotion behind the opera’s story, particularly the despair and defiance of Orfeo, remains relatable. Tenor Colin Balzer, who portrays Orfeo, says the plot hits home for anyone who’s ever experienced the death of a family member or friend.
Colin Balzer portrays Orfeo and Zahra Brown portrays the spirit of Euridice in Claudio Monteverdi's "L'Orfeo." - PHOTO BY GERRY SZYMANSKI
  • PHOTO BY GERRY SZYMANSKI
  • Colin Balzer portrays Orfeo and Zahra Brown portrays the spirit of Euridice in Claudio Monteverdi's "L'Orfeo."
“For me, it was my niece, in her 20s, prime of life, and her heart stopped on her, right at the beginning of the pandemic,” Balzer said. “And it was so tragic, you know? So loss is like, it's right there, right there on the tip of my tongue.”

For Balzer, it’s not Orfeo’s god-like status that makes his story compelling, but his humanity. “He's destroyed and feels really human feelings of loss and despair,” Balzer said of Orfeo. “And that humanness is what convinces Hades to let Euridice go.

“So not his godly powers — it's in his broken humanness that the true magic lies, and I think that's the kind of overarching theme for this production, is the beauty happening in our brokenness. That in our tragedy and in failing, maybe that’s where beauty comes from.”

For Eastman School of Music alumnus and “L’Orfeo” stage director Emily Cuk, Euridice’s death is not just about the loss of a person, but a metaphor for the end of life as we knew it before the pandemic.



“If it wasn’t for the pandemic, in a kind of off way, I don’t know if I would have arrived at the concept, the themes that I wanted to bring out,” Cuk said, referring to what are commonly known as the five stages of grief. “I think the pandemic really made it click for me, living through the shock and fear, and sort of global grieving process and experience of dealing with something incredibly traumatic. Being on a high and it suddenly, unexpectedly being ripped away from you. That’s in the story and in the music.”
Colin Balzer as Orfeo. - PHOTO BY GERRY SZYMANSKI
  • PHOTO BY GERRY SZYMANSKI
  • Colin Balzer as Orfeo.
She pointed to Orfeo, a character who is surrounded by people for most of the opera, finding himself alone and desperate in the end.

“It’s the first time we see him fully alone,” Cuk said. “And so that idea of community being around you, less people around you and less people around you, to when you’re fully alone. That meant something new, living through the pandemic.”

For more information on Pegasus Early Music's production of "L'Orfeo," go to pegasusearlymusic.org.

Daniel J. Kushner is CITY's arts editor. He can be reached at dkushner@rochester-citynews.com.