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Gardiner's 'Orfeo' on the Road

available at Amazon
C. Monteverdi, L'Orfeo, English Baroque Soloists, Monteverdi Choir, J. E. Gardiner
(Archiv, 1990)

[Survey of Recordings]
Washington is a city overrun with choral singers and early music-heads, as well as the audiences that keep them afloat. Where were all of those people on Tuesday night for the rare performance of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo? Presented by Washington Performing Arts in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, it was doubly rare because it was part of the tour of the English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir, under legendary conductor John Eliot Gardiner. This was not the first time that we have reviewed the opera live, since it celebrated its 400th anniversary in 2007, when we heard performances by Concerto Italiano and Concerto Vocale Gent, both in Europe.

Gardiner, who turned 72 on Monday, formed his Monteverdi Choir over fifty years ago to give a performance of the composer's Vespro della Beata Vergine, a masterpiece even greater than L'Orfeo. In only two cities on this tour, Gardiner will lead a performance of the so-called 1610 Vespers alongside L'Orfeo -- sadly, not including the District of Columbia. The Gardiner recording of L'Orfeo was crucial in my musical formation, but it is no longer my favorite. Likewise, while Gardiner's approach to the work has changed somewhat since that recording, made in London in 1985, this performance was good, but not necessarily great. The forces were essentially the same here as on the recording, with slight number changes in recorders, trumpets, cornetti, and theorbos: there were even a few senior players in the ensemble who took part in that landmark recording.

Other Articles:

Anne Midgette, Gardiner leads pastoral celebration with memorable ‘Orfeo’ (Washington Post, April 23)

Janos Gereben, It's News to Me: No Hint of Aging for Orfeo (San Francisco Classical Voice, April 22)

Georgia Rowe, Monteverdi's great 'Orfeo' gets the classic John Eliot Gardiner touch (San Jose Mercury News, April 16)
Tenor Andrew Tortise was a fine Orfeo, one of the first virtuoso roles in operatic history, with rhythmic delight in Vi ricorda o bosch'ombrosi (an early example of the serenade aria type) and effortless beauty of tone and control of fast runs in Possente spirto (perhaps the first true operatic showpiece). The tone of his voice is quite pretty, flexible and light but with a satisfying resonance, casting a spell over the listener in that latter aria sung to Charon. (He did have one rather extensive memory slip in the second stanza of Qual onor, which we can chalk up to travel fatigue, something that may also account for the occasional scratchiness in his voice.) Francesca Aspromonte brought a clarion soprano and playful stage presence to the music of the Prologo and the Messagiera. Soprano Mariana Flores had a darker, somewhat softer tone as Eurydice and La Speranza. Bass Gianlucca Buratto made an imposing Caronte and Plutone, with impressive low notes, and Francesca Boncompagni was a silvery- light Proserpina.

The performance added up to about twenty minutes more than the length of the recording, this with no intermission and no pauses allowed for applause. The recitatives and in some cases the metered music was allowed a little more room to expand, but by and large Gardiner has stuck with his reading of Monteverdi's score, leading with a consistent and gracious hand. On the instrumental side, generally excellent, the cornetti had a bit of a rough night, right from the crucial opening Toccata, and there was an early solo violin entrance in the shepherds' scene. The addition of tambourine and drum, as well as vigorous hand clapping, enlivened many of the the choral and ballet scenes, danced by a few singers from the polished and puissant Monteverdi Choir as part of a rather successful semi-staging. The harp solo in the middle of Possente spirto was particularly fine, with harpist Gwyneth Wentink giving voice to the lyre of Orpheus.

The tour of these Monteverdi performances continues on to California (Costa Mesa and San Francisco), Princeton, and New York. The Carnegie Hall performance of the 1610 Vespers will be broadcast on WQXR (April 30). Do not miss it.


Gary said...

I thought the music was magnificent, especially the chorus and most of the soloists (La Musica, the countertenor, and Charon come to mind, among others). I got chills up my spine more than once. However, supertitles would have been really nice.

David Boxwell said...

Act IV was particularly glacial and slack. The whole performance should have been 15 minutes shorter. I liked Krystian Adam (Pastore I) the most of all the singers.

Anonymous said...

What is your favorite recording of L'Orfeo now?