May 7, 1998

Christopher Jackson was musical director of French production of L'Orfeo

Back from a musician's paradise

by Barbara Black

In the myth of Orpheus, the demigod descends to hell to look for his beloved Eurydice, but Dean of Fine Arts Christopher Jackson has just spent four months on tour with Orpheus in a musician's paradise.

Jackson, who has an active career in early music, was musical director of a major production in France of L'Orfeo, by Claudio Monteverdi. The experience left him, not for the first time, deeply envious of the encouragement given to classical music in that country.

As founder of a well-known early-music chamber group, the Studio de Musique Ancienne de Montréal (SMAM), Jackson knows the French musical world well, but this four-month stint was an especially enriching experience. He went with his wife, Dominique, also a musician, and their three children, aged 6, 8 and 13, who adapted well to a period of home study.

The production of L'Orfeo was directed by Christian Gangneron, with whom SMAM had worked on a production of three 17th-century oratorios titled Histoires sacrées. The production toured in 1994, and subsequently, a CD was released under the same title.

Not only did Gangneron design a richly painted, versatile set in the form of a large tryptic, but the French director, whom Jackson describes as a charismatic man with elements of the philosopher and the social worker, did extensive research and went to great lengths to educate his audience.

There was a touring 20-minute avant-gout of the opera to prepare high schools and other venues, and there was even a full conference last summer, complete with academic papers. No expense was spared. "France is a very socialist country," Jackson said. "They don't have to hustle [for cultural funding]."

Production was by ARCAL, the Atelier de recherche et de création pour l'art lyrique, which is well subsidized by the government. The tour included a dozen performances in various venues on the Île de France, near Paris, and visits to 10 other cities, from Amiens to Vichy.

"We had full houses everywhere we went -- 1,000 to 1,400 people every night," Jackson recalled, shaking his head in wonder. "It was mind-boggling, just incredible." The opera was well noted in the press, and Jackson was interviewed.

L'Orfeo was first produced in 1607, and while it is often called "the first opera," it is quite different from the art form that bloomed in the 18th and 19th centuries and is familiar to us now.

In the Greek myth, the musician Orpheus (or Orfeo) was distraught when Eurydice died. He could only get her out of Hades on the condition that he not look back at her. He did, and she disappeared forever. These values of self-control, courage and the power of art are not hard to make relevant today. But the theatrical conventions of the early 17th century are less accessible.

"L'Orfeo is very bound up with neo-Platonist thought," Jackson explained. "It's quite difficult to stage, because you get little bursts of action, and then a character comes forward to tell the audience the moral of what is going on." The preparation for the production included a seminar with the principal artists on musical ornamentation, pronunciation of early Italian, and other fine points.

Jackson said that SMAM may eventually give L'Orfeo its first full Montreal performance with the sets and costumes from this successful French production.

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