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Monteverdi, ‘L’Orfeo’ Le Concert d’Astrée, dir. Emmanuelle Haïm, Barbican Hall, January 12th 2003. (ME)


A nearly-full house for a semi-staged concert performance of a Monteverdi opera? Well, it has been known – when William Christie’s ‘Les Arts Florissants’ performed ‘Il Ritorno di Ulisse’ here last year, there was not an empty seat – or a dry eye – in the house. Perhaps that was the more remarkable, though, since the director was not described as being extraordinary because she directs from the keyboard, unlike all those old fuddy-duddies, you know, but ‘merely’ William Christie, and the cast were virtual unknowns here, superb though they were. Last night, however, there was no getting away from it, as the publicity leaflets made clear – Ian Bostridge as (or was that ‘is’?) Orfeo. I’m sure that a high proportion of the audience had come for him alone, with another fairly high number intrigued by Emmanuelle Haïm, the director, who is female (gasp!) glamorous (double gasp!) flings herself about as though she were playing Rachmaninov (orgasmic squeaks!) and ‘directs’ from the keyboard (frenzied ecstasy!). Well, speaking entirely personally, I always had the impression that that wooden thing behind which William Christie and Trevor Pinnock stood, was a keyboard – but don’t mind me, I’m just there for the music.

Oh yes, the music… this was the touchy-feely, ‘Oh – baybee ah’ve lowst yew’ ‘Orfeo,’ just stopping short of being presented with hand-held mikes and mostly sung as though the preceding forty years of scholarship and understanding of this music had never taken place. Vocal decorations? We don’t got ‘em, except for a couple of shepherds: long phrases such as ‘A lei volt ‘ho il cammin’ sung without a breath in order to impress the audience with the singer’s virtuosity as well as persuade Caronte? You jest, surely… this is the All New! Scrubbed Clean! Declaimed and Not Merely Sung! version, in which we gaze upon Ian’s languid form whilst we try to work out why Mlle Haïm is squirming around to no apparent purpose.

The instrumentalists (including ‘Les Sacqueboutiers’) were proficient, making very creditable attempts at getting on with playing the music whilst taking as little notice as they possibly could of their director, and the ‘semi-staging’ had been neatly conceived, making clever use of different levels and some very canny lighting effects.

And the singing? For the most part, more Verdi than Monte, especially in the case of Christopher Maltman’s sturdy, dramatically persuasive Shepherd and Apollo, Alice Coote’s melodramatic Messaggiera (an aside, but why did the surtitles tell us that she was an ‘ill-omened bird’ when the sung line actually refers to an ‘ill-omened bat’ who is going to hide in a cave?) and Sonia Prina’s opulent-voiced Speranza; she might have been singing Azucena. Carolyn Sampson performed very beautifully as Musica and Euridice, and the counter-tenor Pascal Bertin produced some lovely, authentic decorations in his lines. It was the veteran tenor Paul Agnew, however, who, despite a chest infection, showed how it should be done, with elegant, idiomatically phrased and at times quite virtuosic singing in his tiny role as the second shepherd.

No one could possibly accuse me of lacking appreciation of Ian Bostridge’s qualities: in review after review I have praised him, in the most recent going so far as to say that his performance of ‘Winter Words’ represented ‘singing of true greatness.’ There are limits, however, and he is not Orfeo: his Peter Quint is unequalled in my experience, his Tamino surprisingly under-rated, his singing of Schubert and Britten of the very highest order, but this latest assumption is on a par with his attempt to sing some of Bach’s arias for bass voice, and his recent Noel Coward recording – to my ears, simply unsuitable. Why? He does not have the required notes, would be the short answer, nor the essential breath control, nor the virtuosic technique, with the result that much of his music sounds weak, lumpy and inconsequential when it should sound quite the reverse. There were so many intrusive ‘uh’ sounds that I lost count after a while, and the ‘showpiece’ aria ‘Possente spirto’ was sung with unvaried tone and emphasis, as of one who is concentrating on getting the notes out, as well he might.

I’m quite sure that all of this is of no importance to those who wish to feast their eyes on his delectable form and enjoy his, as always, highly committed acting, but it would be impossible for anyone truly intimate with this work to have gained much real musical pleasure from his singing. However, I have to say that there is one thing which he and Haïm did achieve, and that is, simply, to bring ‘L’Orfeo’ to such a large audience: I may not care for Mlle Haïm’s style (or, rather, for the fact that there is more of it than substance) or for Bostridge’s performance in this role, but the fact remains that they are clearly committed to it, their involvement has brought an audience to hear this miraculous work who might otherwise never have discovered it, and that can only be laudable. If just twenty people left the hall last night wanting to hear the work again, then a great service has been performed; if any of them are reading this, then you have much joy and revelation in store: if you can, listen to the Philip Pickett recording on L’Oiseau Lyre, where ‘Possente spirto’ is given in true Monteverdian style and with the kind of virtuosity that makes your jaw drop – or, better still, try to get hold of the DG Archiv version, and listen to Nigel Rogers and Ian Partridge ascending to Heaven with sounds that will remind you of what a life-changing experience truly great singing can be - ‘Saliam cantando al cielo’ - indeed.


Melanie Eskenazi

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