This newly-released recording of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo was made in 2006 – almost exactly 400 years since it was written for the Mantuan court (in 1607). Since there are, perhaps surprisingly, 30 other recordings to choose from (more than of any of Monteverdi's other operas), why this one? Three attributes of the performance from Ad Hoc Bern and soloists under Sergio Vartolo on Brilliant Classics are immediately obvious:
The conception of Vartolo, who conducts from the harpsichord and spinet, is an intimate one. There is little of the grand, the rhetorical or oratorically extrovert. Although there are a dozen and a half instrumentalists playing throughout the two and a third hours of glorious music contained on these two CDs, their sounds are gentle, restrained, caressing and supportive, rather than bombastic. One can imagine heads unassumingly bowed as they perform, looks shot between performers almost furtively as needed; little stage gesture – from singers and players all intent on recreating something special; recreating music that just doesn't need either rhetoric or excitement for effect. Listen, for instance, to the intensity of "In un fiorito prato" Act II [CD.1 tr.7], when Orfeo first learns what has happened to his beloved Euridice. Then the cry of anguish that follows. Very real, each passage, in different ways. But the intimacy with which they're presented here not only suggests the likely atmosphere in the court of the Gonzagas. But it's also communicative, it conveys real feelings. True, there may be a little in William Matteuzzi's (tenor) Orfeo of the bel canto, of Verdi's melodrama, it seems wrong to deny that Baroque gesture didn't have its own forces too. But there is real emotion… listen to the slow, grave, reflective and completely unhurried pace at which the "Sol tu&helip;" scene [CD.2. tr.3] is taken. Nothing spectacular or showy about this. Yet the playing and singing are full of color. The result is that the events assume an even more tragic hue than they do in some recordings where the springing rhythms of Monteverdi are allowed to obscure his subtlety.
Secondly, there is still a momentum, a joy, a liveliness in this L'Orfeo. For all the need to which this production responds to dwell on the "high" drama of the myth, nothing drags… especially in the slow moments; they're studied and deliberate. But never heavy, ponderous or without pace. When the plot requires joy, celebration or optimism, the performers have liveliness, color, energy in abundance. Nor is it manufactured or stereotypical, as some playing of Monteverdi – which aims to project sparkle for no good reason – is. Here you can always see cause for spiritedness. That's usually the text, of course. But in the instrumental openings to Acts I, II and III, one senses that Ad Hoc Bern so closely identifies with the era of the first performances, and the early years of opera itself, that their excitement and enthusiasm are borne of the tensions which we know gave birth to the new art form, rather than empty declaration. Period instruments are used, of course.
Further, then, this is a very human, a very genuine account of L'Orfeo. That stands out particularly in the singers' warmth and engagement. It's their commitment that comes over most strongly. When there's dialog, it sounds like real dialog… "Signor, quel infelice" at the start of Act IV [CD.2 tr.4], for example. This is drama, not repetition of dry idea. People engaging with one another and with circumstance. Yet not histrionic. What's more, the studied (but never precious) way in which the characters of the opera live through its events is very persuasively achieved. Amongst the cast of a dozen or so singers none is either weak nor leaves the others in the shade. Indeed, that same interplay, dialog and many ways in which the principals in particular relate to one another is never so stylized as to drain the drama of impact – or even surprise, as in the very last scene. Real, human, fallible yet shot through with aspirations, fears, bravery and a certain disdain for overwhelming forces and fate, each character in this account has an important part to play. And all play it superbly. The ensemble singing, too, is convincing, and as beautiful as anything Monteverdi ever wrote.
This L'Orfeo, then, is something of a triumph for Brilliant. Part of their "Brilliant Opera Collection" series, it's hard to attach any major criticism to concept, execution or presentation. Monteverdi's opera is deep and broad enough to support multiple interpretations. Rather than seeking novelty for its own sake, this is a production which deftly and unfussily pulls out the essence of the composer's own conception and offers it to aware audiences 400 years later as what it is; it asks us to appreciate it for that. L'Orfeo as a real and lasting achievement.
The acoustic of the recording (in the purpose built Auditorium of Pigna in Corsica) is close, effective and projects every breath, stroke and beat of the music very well. It has the effect of putting you in an early audience at Court. Appropriate. The booklet that comes with the CDs is minimal; all the details are there but only an essay on the opera interspersed with extracts from the libretto; it's still likely that you'll learn something from it. You have to go online for Brilliant's full text (in Italian and English).
Enthusiasts for Monteverdi and early opera should not miss this version, which was previously released as Brilliant 93103. That's not the same as yet another version by Vartolo on a significantly larger scale. It may not have the panache and unstoppable drive of Rogers/Medlam (EMI Classics 64947). But it is just as polished, as fetching, as real and three-dimensional as any other recording available, including also those of Alessandrini (Naïve 30439) and Cavina (Glossa GCD920913). Satisfying, stimulating, technically impressive, full of expressivity and emotional impact. Recommended.
Copyright © 2012, Mark Sealey.