Friday 21 June 2013

Surely one of the best performances yet recorded of Monteverdi’s L‘Orfeo with the Taverner Consort and Players directed by Andrew Parrott on a new release from Avie Records

The whole idea of opera was quite new when, in 1607, Claudio Monteverdi wrote L’Orfeo - Favola in Musica  (Orpheo - A Musical Fable). It can now be seen as probably the first great opera to be written. Alessandro Striggio the Younger

(c. 1573-1630), Mantuan Court Chancellor and son of the composer Alessandro Striggio (c.1536/1537-1592), provided the libretto based on the story of Orpheus, who descends into the underworld to retrieve the dead Eurydice, fails to do so, but is comforted and taken up to heaven by Apollo.

The first performance took place before members of the academy, probably in the Palazzo Ducale, Mantua  Whilst the soloists were probably all local virtuosos, it is known that at least one singer was brought from Florence. Such was the triumph of the first performance that the Duke of Mantua ordered another performance less than a week later.

Avie Records  have just released a new recording of L’Orfeo with the Taverner Consort and Players directed by Andrew Parrott
and a fine line up of soloists including Charles Daniels (tenor)  as Orpheus and Faye Newton (soprano) as Eurydice.

The opera consists of a prologue and five acts. A grand instrumental toccata precedes the Prologue where David Hurley (countertenor)  sings the role of the allegorical figure, Music (La Musica). He has a terrific countertenor voice, secure and pure, yet with a rich timbre providing pure beauty with the often spare accompaniment of the chitarrone. 

In Act I Simon Wall (tenor) takes the role of one of the shepherds (Pastore 2) in In questo lieto e fortunate giorno (On this happy and fortunate day) where he is excellent in all the little inflections and ornamentations. The members of the Taverner Consort that make up the chorus are also excellent in the chorus Vieni Imeneo, deh vieni. Anna Dennis (soprano)  Ninfa is excellent, pure yet characterful.

The chorus re-appear in the Balleto – Lasciate I monti (Leave your mountains) with some terrific interplay of voices in this fast and lively piece – great fun. Rodrigo del Pozo (high tenor) has an attractive voice in Ma tu gentil cantor s’a tuoi lamenti gia festi lagrimar queste champagne (But you noble singer, if at your lamenting you once did make these fields to weep).

In Rosa del Ciel, vita del Mondo (Rose of Heaven, life of the World) Orpheus (Orfeo) makes his entrance with Charles Daniels (tenor) bringing an assurance and strength as well as an Italianate sound. Faye Newton (soprano) has a lovely voice as Eurydice. Gareth Morrell (tenor) takes the role of the third shepherd (Pastore 3) in Ma s’il nostro gioir  dal Ciel deriva (But if our joy from Heaven derives) bringing yet another fine tenor voice that handles the subtle decorations so well. The concluding Ritornello – Alcun non sia brings two of the shepherds and Anna Dennis as Ninfa who beautifully weave their voices around each other.

Act II opens with the Sinfonia before Charles Daniels sings Ecco pur ch’a voi ritorno (Soon now how I return to you) with some lovely accompaniment from the Taverner Players. As the shepherds sing of the beautiful countryside where Pan, god of shepherds was sometimes overheard in sorrow, there are lovely instrumental Ritornello parts for various instruments, first little violins, then ordinary violins and finally recorders, beautifully done. In Vi recorda o boschi ombrosi Charles Daniels again shows how excellent a voice he has for Orpheus, creating such a feeling of Italian pastoral atmosphere.  The Messenger (Messaggiera) brings the lovely voice of Emily van Evera (soprano)  as she sings Ahi caso acerbo, ahi fato empio e crudele (Ahi, bitter chance, ahi, wicked and cruel fate) wonderfully done with a very attractive dialogue with the shepherds. Emily van Evera is also excellent in her emotional In un fiorito prato (In a flowery meadow) showing such fine control.

When Orpheus sings Tu se’morta mia vita, ed io respire? (You are dead, my life, and do I still breathe?) Charles Daniels brings a surprising degree of emotion to this piece. The chorus bring some lovely singing to Ahi caso acerbo (Ahi, bitter chance) with various vocal parts sounding out distinctively. When Emily van Evera enters as the messenger in Ma io ch’in questa lingua ho portato il coltello (But I, who in this tongue carried the knife) she is terrific, very dramatic.  

Act II ends with two shepherds singing Chi ne consola ahi lassi?(Who shall console us, ahi, alas?) The shepherd’s voices blend so well and the Taverner Players in the preceding Sinfonia are on top form in the mournful music. This is a lovely ending.

The brass opening of Act III Sinfonia giving such a glorious period sound, very evocative. Orpheus sings Speranza unico bene (Hope, sole blessing) as the fine, strong voice of Hope, sung by Clare Wilkinson (mezzo -soprano) , appears, with the words Lasciate ogni speranza o voi ch’entrate (Abandon all hope, all you who enter)

Curtis Streetman (bass) is a suitably frightening Charon (Caronte) as he sings O tu ch’innanzi morte a queste rive temerario te n’vieni (O you, who to these banks ahead of death most rashly come) with a lovely low range and accompanied by a regal.

Whilst Orpheus appeals with the words Possente Spirto e formidabil Nume (Powerful Spirit) and fearsome Divinity) the ritornello sound as though from afar, two violins, then two cornets and finally a most attractive double harp. This is a particularly tragic part of the opera and quite affecting. As Charon continues in Ben mi lusinga alquanto (There is a certain allurement) Curtis Streetman gives a terrific characterisation and superb little decorations.

Ahi sventurato amante provides Charles Daniels with another terrific part as Orpheo cries out Ahi unfortunate love. The final Sinfonia of Act III has striking brass dominating the opening before the Chorus of the Spirits of the Underworld sing Nulla impresa per buom (No enterprise is tried by man in vain) a glorious end to Act III Final Sinfonia.

At the beginning of Act IV Emily Van Evera (soprano) returns this time as Proserpine where she pleads with Pluto with her youthful voice in Signor quell’infelice (Lord, that unhappy man) finely sung. Pluto, sung by Christopher Purves (bass) , has the same regal accompaniment as Charon and proves to be a strong and powerful Pluto in Benché severo & immutabil fato contrasti amata sposa (Although a harsh and immutable fate opposes your desires).

There is a moment of intense drama as Orfeo sees Eurydice and sings O dolcissimi lumi ( Oh sweetest eyes, I now see you) followed by one of the most poignant of moments, so exquisitely sung by Faye Newton (Eurydice), Clare Wilkinson (A Spirit) and Charles Daniels (Orpheus). A Sinfonia intones a sorrowful tune before the Chorus of Spirits end this Act.

After an opening Ritornello, Orpheus sings Act V Questi I campi di Tracia, e questo e il loco dove passommi il core (These are the fields of Thrace, this is the place where my heart was pierced), Charles Daniels providing more superb singing, full of feeling, so Italianate in this extended despairing lament. Simon Wall provides the echo to Orpheus’ voice, an effect apparently popular at the time. Here it works brilliantly.

Guy Pelc (baritone)  as Apollo descends to aid Orpheus. His is another strong voice in Perchè a lo sdegno & al dolor in preda (Why thus gripped by scorn and grief). As Orpheus and Appolo ascend to Heaven they sing Saliam cantando al Cielo (Let us go singing up to Heaven) a terrific combination of voices beautifully decorated.

The chorus sing Vanne Orfeo felice a pieno (Go, Orpheus, full of happiness) in this lively section with fine instrumental playing.  Moresca is a lively dance full of joy and life to end this wonderful opera.

This must surely be one of the best performances yet recorded of Monteverdi’s masterpiece. The recording, made in the church of St Michael and All Angels, Summerstown, Oxford, is pretty much ideal, allowing one to imagine sitting in on an intimate performance. There are excellent booklet notes by Hugh Griffith and Andrew Parrott and a libretto in both the original Italian and English.

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