Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607--about a decade after the first opera) is a work that is studied in school. There is a cursory list of 6-8 instruments at the start of the score, all strings of one kind or another. Monteverdi was still in Cremona at that time while the infancy of orchestration was going on in Venice. The specific orchestration of the opera is done by modern arrangers even when the instruments themselves are old. This editor has added a lot of brasses to the mix.
The performance of Orfeo, in English, presented by the English National Opera was an odd mixture. The musical elements were self-consciously antique, including the restringing of the violins with gut. The singers performed their trillos and other ornaments correctly but without enthusiasm.
The production looked more like a trip to Bali than a trip to ancient Greece. Oriental dancers were given a substantial responsibility for dramatic continuity. It gave the producers the opportunity to have a lot more activity on the stage than would otherwise have been the case, but my rule that the production exists to explain the action was not generally in evidence. We know the story, and still we don’t get it. The drama of Orfeo not looking at Euridice was well done. The rest was busy and disorganized. The celebration of Orfeo’s wedding was a drunken orgy. The deus ex machina was like a man being rescued by a helicopter instead of Apollo elevating Orfeo to demigod status.
The main thing not explained is the fundamental idea of the Orfeo myth—that music has the power to seduce the gods, that it transcends even death itself.
The antique instruments don’t make very much noise. Perhaps the problem is that this intimate music is just too soothing. It soothed me right to sleep.