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15.7.07

Ionarts in Siena: Concerto Italiano's Orfeo


Rinaldo Alessandrini, conductor
Michael recently reviewed the staging of Claudio Monteverdi's Orfeo at the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, and you can also read my review of a recent DVD version. In honor of the 400th anniversary of the birth of opera as we know it, we are not done with Monteverdi's first opera, first performed in the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua on February 24, 1607. On Wednesday night, Rinaldo Alessandrini led a remarkable concert performance of Orfeo, as part of the 64th Settimana Musicale Senese, in Siena's Chiesa di Sant'Agostino. Even considering all of the good music I have heard so far in Italy, as well as what still remains, this event was in many ways the keenly anticipated acme of my reviewing schedule. Alessandrini and his group, Concerto Italiano, whose recordings of Vivaldi's Four Seasons and Monteverdi's madrigals (Book 6 and Book 8) have been warmly recommended listening at Ionarts, did not disappoint.

Those recordings prepared me to expect Alessandrini to put his distinctive mark on Monteverdi's classic score, and the results made me hope that Concerto Italiano will record this opera soon. First of all, the casting ranged from very good to extraordinary. At the top of the list was contralto Sara Mingardo, who lent her steely stage presence and reedy, unusual voice to the roles of the messenger (who announces the news of Euridice's death) and La Speranza (who accompanies Orfeo to the gate of hell, where he must obey Dante's inscription and abandon her). She arrested all attention as soon as she took the stage, in a tunic-like soft pink gown, gliding slowly and standing with poise like a Greek statue of Aphrodite.

With an equally attractive voice but lower dramatic wattage, tenor Furio Zanasi was a potent and suave Orfeo. His rendition of the celebrated serenade of Charon ("Possente spirto") was heart-meltingly beautiful, especially as accompanied by different combinations of instruments, including a lovely section for harpist Loredana Gintoli. Monica Piccinini was a lyrical Musica in the prologue and made significant contributions in the excellent choruses of nymphs and shepherds (with impressive swells of sound in the striking "Ahi caso acerbo!"). Anna Simboli was subtle and luscious as Euridice and Proserpina. Among the men, bass Sergio Foresti stood out as a terrifying and resonant Caronte, with projection that sliced nicely through the thick accompaniment of trombones and regale. Antonio Abete was not quite as strong but still fine as Plutone, and tenor Luca Dordolo was appropriately celestial as Apollo in the astrological duet that follows Orfeo's echo aria in the fifth act.

64th Settimana Musicale Senese:

Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia (July 14)

Cappella della Pietà de' Turchini (July 10)

Fabio Vacchi, La Madre del Mostro (July 8)
As you might expect from listening to Alessandrini's recordings, he conducts with exciting verve. When not accompanying recitatives or playing on either the portative organ or the harpsichord stacked on top of it, he lunged toward the singers or instrumentalists, indicating with his agitated dancing or gentle gestures the musical spirit he wanted to create. (Some of that energy seemed to be directed at the middle strings, who were perpetually a hair behind Alessandrini's beat, and one of whom broke a string in the second act.) Even for someone familiar with the score, Alessandrini's direction regularly surprised, from the shockingly florid embellishments (by the awe-inspiring cornetti, played by Doron Sherwin and Fiona Russell, in the famous opening toccata or by singers, as in La Musica's strophic prologue) to the sometimes unusual choice of tempo (a very fast opening ritornello to "Io la Musica son," for example, and unexpectedly languid sections in "Lasciate i monti"). As noted of Concerto Italiano's recordings, the group has put down a claim on Italy's first Baroque composer of genius with its exciting performances and the singers' native and exquisite pronunciation of these poetic texts.

After a short trip to Rome, Ionarts was back in Siena last night for the conclusion of the 64th Settimana Musicale Senese. Associated concerts continue throughout August, in Siena and nearby towns, in the 76th Estate Musicale Chigiana, including performances by violinist Giuliano Carmignola (July 21), harpsichordist Christophe Rousset (August 1), cellist Antonio Meneses (August 3), and pianist Maurizio Pollini (August 12).

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