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Concerto Italiano: L'Orfeo

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Monteverdi, L'Orfeo, F. Zanasi, A. Simboli, S. Mingardo, Concerto Italiano, R. Alessandrini
(released on October 30, 2007)
On February 24, the world's first real opera, Claudio Monteverdi's L'Orfeo, had its 400th birthday. Sitting in the audience for the live performance of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo in Siena this past July, the hope for a recording of Concerto Italiano's version was paramount in my mind. This recording was put down in February at Rome's Accademia di Santa Cecilia, just before the group undertook a tour of concert performances of Orfeo, including the one that I heard in Siena. As one might expect from Concerto Italiano's recordings of the Four Seasons or Monteverdi's madrigals (see my reviews of Book 6 and Book 8), this is an interpretation of one of the most famous and beloved pieces of music designed to keep you at the edge of your seat and occasionally knock you off it altogether.

Monteverdi, Orfeo:
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Le Concert d'Astrée

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English Baroque Soloists

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Concerto Vocale
For years, the version in my CD player has been John Eliot Gardiner's from 1985, which has been remarkable ever since it came out for combining excellent voices with fine playing (English Baroque Soloists and His Majesties Sagbutts -- *snicker* -- and Cornetts). Rinaldo Alessandrini's jagged exploration of the unexpected makes Gardiner seem almost disappointingly complacent and placid. Not that the Gardiner is not worth owning, which it certainly is, but if you are going to own only one of the two (at the moment, they are at the same prize from Amazon), Concerto Italiano is more exciting listening. If you are going to buy only one Orfeo (why would anyone do that?), then the recording by Le Concert d'Astrée is the best value for the price, almost half of either Gardiner or Alessandrini. It has the most impressive cast list, too: Ian Bostridge, Patrizia Ciofi, Natalie Dessay, Véronique Gens, with Emmanuelle Haïm conducting. The Concerto Vocale recording, with René Jacobs at the podium, has nice turns by Jennifer Larmore and Andreas Scholl. At its prohibitively high price, however, one would hope for a better Orfeo than Laurence Dale provides.

Alessandrini does not approach any measure in the score with anything but the greatest care for texture, ensemble, and verve. With a care for impelling the recitation of the text, he accompanies recitatives that are never dull or limp. Seeing him conduct in Siena helped me to understand how he gets his musicians to make such exciting sounds, by lunging toward the singers or instrumentalists, indicating with his agitated dancing or gentle gestures the musical spirit he wanted to create. A vivid sense of florid embellishment further decorates the score, shocking an ear familiar with the melodies, by the 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 by Monica Piccinini. Tempi are often either unexpectedly fast (the opening ritornello to "Io la Musica son") or surprisingly languid (sections in "Lasciate i monti"). Alessandrini shaves off three to four minutes from the overall performance time set down by Gardiner.

Sara Mingardo, contralto
The cast is generally extraordinary and, at worst, very good. Contralto Sara Mingardo is a steely 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 -- a thrilling moment at the top of Mingardo's range). With an equally attractive voice, tenor Furio Zanasi is a potent and suave Orfeo. His rendition of the celebrated serenade of Charon ("Possente spirto" in Act III) is heart-meltingly beautiful, especially as accompanied by different combinations of instruments, including a lovely section for harpist Loredana Gintoli. The crescendo to full volume on the repeated line "Rendetemi il mio ben, tartarei Numi!" (Give me back my love, gods of Tartarus) can raise the hair on my arms. Just a few times, the goat trills and shuddering runs by Zanasi and the other male singers edge uncomfortably close to ludicrous in sound.

Monica Piccinini is a lyrical La Musica in the prologue, and Anna Simboli is subtle and luscious as Euridice and Proserpina. Among the men, bass Sergio Foresti stood out as a terrifying and resonant Caronte, with projection that slices nicely through the thick accompaniment of trombones and regale. Tenor Luca Dordolo is appropriately celestial as Apollo in the astrological duet that follows Orfeo's echo aria in the fifth act. The bound booklet features a fascinating and over-complete essay by Alessandrini, which in laying out the conductor's reasons for scoring the performance as he did, surveys all of the relevant sources of information about L'Orfeo. Accompanying it is a puzzling piece by Camille Laurens, its psychological speculations irksome in inverse relationship to the interest of Alessandrini's essay. Do not even bother reading it. There are more than a few favorite performances in my concert-going experience that I would love to be able to replay all the time. Here is one example of a recording that actually makes that possible. Pre-order your copy from Amazon for its release next week.

Naïve OP 30439

Furio Zanasi as Orfeo, Liceu, directed by Jordi Savall

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