This is an Orfeo for the twenty-first century. It has the roughness and bite of cider straight from the apple press and the almost acerbic conviction of moonshine that's just left the still. Yet as a drink, it's smooth, refreshing and satisfying. The first thing you'll notice is the sparse and raspy instrumental accompaniment by La Venexiana – a perfect blend with the down to earth singing and articulation of the principals. Then you'll be struck by the generally slower pace of the performance under Claudio Cavina. Not that it lacks momentum… listen to the way the melody in "Pietade oggi ed amore" and "Qual honor di te fia degno" (CD2 trs.15, 16) weave their way forward and around the bass like those who've produced contraband running from the law – not always stepping carefully with each and every call across the glades as they flee.
This is not to suggest that there is anything either "folksy" or rough around the edges in this the preferable of the two new recordings of Monteverdi's masterpiece to appear in the past six months. The other is from Alessandrini with Concerto Italiano on Naïve 30439. Rather, that La Venexiana's is an enterprise that aims to go straight for the guts of music's oldest story. Cavina and La Venexiana's very holistic approach reflects well what is now known about the way that early opera (in the northern and central Italian states around the turn of the seventeenth century) represented not really an explosion of a "new form" where dramatic words were set to dramatic music. But was an almost predictable, inevitable confluence of techniques. These involved words and music, for sure. But also effects, stage machinery, choreography, costume, gesture etc. It's this sense of life, this animation and drive, which this performance and recording on Glossa so well convey.
Scenes in the work's five acts follow one another with a logic that's dictated by a lively performance, rather than a reconstruction of splash to support a theory remote from those listening… and perhaps alien to some of those performing! It is clear, though, that current thinking on how Monteverdi achieved what he did, and built on the work of Peri and Caccini, has fully informed these experts' approach. What we sit and listen to is paced and staged with the intention of putting us in a hall in Mantua or a villa in the Veneto during the first half of the seventeenth century; rather than showcasing vocal or instrumental virtuosity, or the sparkle of an aria, the perfection of an ensemble.
The standard of the soloists is nevertheless high. Few are household names. Yet their articulation, sense of performing right from their parts' interiors, and evident delight at the music make for a particularly satisfying experience. Emanuela Galli (La Musica/Euridice) and Mirko Guadagnini (Orfeo) deserve special mention for their insight, vivaciousness and tenderness just when it's needed. Though they're not alone in sharing approbation for clear, very clear, rounded and incisive portrayals throughout. If there were a slight criticism, it would be that some of the other singers lack the charisma which we have come to expect in some Monteverdi conceptions. But one suspects this is all but intentional. By the same token, a slimmer and sparser set of instruments was used. No color has been gratuitously added: the focus is on the drama, the conflict, the myth.
This is very much in keeping with the transparency of early presentations of L'Orfeo: Gonzaga distributed the score to early audiences. What's more, the work was obviously considered sufficiently "fluid" for two endings (disastrous, and happy) to have been developed. As soon as you start listening, you are persuaded of the meticulous thought behind the careful staging – Yes, there is a real presence and sense of space. Listen to the movement in, say, Ei dorme (CD2 tr.10). Great technique prioritizing dramatic moment have gone into this production. Previous Monteverdi recordings (other Glossa editions of the Madrigals, Volumes 2, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8) by La Venexiana have been excellent. This L'orfeo is of the same stamp. There is an admirable mix of pungency, tenderness and purposeful drive in the solo and ensemble singing. Similarly, the instrumentalists both support the former, and move the action on – thanks to their awareness of the work's superstructure.
The great gift of the soloists in combination with one another and the ensemble is that they draw our attention not to the surface spectacle, still less to any novelty, as too many earlier recordings have done, as though L'Orfeo were opera seria. But to its essence. They tackle its complexities and (self-)references as established entities; thereby they have us concentrating on the mythical, psychological and character-rich aspects of the work. Their performance takes for granted that we can see beyond the somewhat modular, formulaic ground that Monteverdi was breaking, into a world (of loss, love, anger, desolation and hope) with which we can be utterly familiar. And yet it's also a world in which there is enough interest to make us want to stay there. This is one of director (and third shepherd) Claudio Cavina's achievements. He also unites the work: there is never a moment's pause or drag. Yet theirs is not a rushed performance.
To reach such a happy state means to let the music take the musicians where it will. Consequently, there is rubato; there is excitement in the soloists' voices; there are variations in tempi. And, above all, perhaps, one can sense the purposes and outcomes behind the way the principles interact and interplay. This is actually facilitated somewhat by a constraint which Cavina has chosen to reproduce: lack of space. There are contemporary accounts of a first staging in cramped surroundings. In this recording there is a corresponding sense of unforced intimacy in which the dramatic charge can be best felt. This tension – and not rhetoric or bombast – is one of this recording's great strengths; and one that rightly sets it apart from many others.
Glossa has gone all out to produce something special here: the two CDs come in paper pockets glued the front and back endpapers (not the most practical solution… scratch-prone) of a nicely-produced (and individually numbered) 90-page book which deals with the historical and mythological context of Orpheus, with Orpheus as poetry and art and with this team's conception of L'Orfeo – as well as a libretto and translation into English and CD details etc. The essays are particularly intelligent and thorough, substantial and well-written. They make an excellent and appropriately-proportioned introduction to the work and its history, background and central place in the broader European artistic development. Given the retail price for this and the two CDs, you're getting very good value for money if you buy this package.
Last year (2007) was the four hundredth anniversary of the opera. It saw a crop of events and recordings, of which almost two dozen are current or recently deleted. For sheer life and energy, focus and beauty Cavina with La Venexiana is right at the top and can be thoroughly recommended on all counts.
Copyright © 2008, Mark Sealey