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Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567 – 1643)

La Musica – Natalie Dessay (soprano)
Orfeo – Ian Bostridge (tenor)
Euridice – Patrizia Ciofi (soprano)
Messagiera – Alice Coote (contralto)
Speranza – Sonia Prina (contralto)
Caronte – Mario Luperio (bass)
Proserpina – Veronique Gens (soprano)
Plutone – Lorenzo Regazzo (bass)
Apollo – Christopher Maltman (baritone)
Ninfa – Carolyn Sampson (soprano)
Eco – Paul Agnew (tenor)
Pastori – Pascal Bertin, Paul Agnew, Christopher Maltman, Richard Burkhard
Spiriti – Malcolm Bennett, Paul Thompson, Norbert Meyn, Richard Burkhard, Robert MacDonald
European Voices; Las Sacqueboutiers
Le Concert d’Astrée/Emmanuelle Haim (harpsichord, organ, regal and direction)
Recorded 15-22 January 2003, Paroisse Notre Dame du Liban, Paris
VIRGIN VERITAS 7243 5 45642 2 2 [45:05 + 51:08]

How did Monteverdi’s ‘Orfeo’ sound at its premiere and does it matter today? We still know frustratingly little about the work’s performance in Mantua; we are not even certain which room in the palace was used, though Philip Pickett produced some interesting research and convincing arguments at his performance of ‘Orfeo’ on the South Bank last autumn. We do know that Monteverdi used quite a small group of singers, just nine or ten people who doubled roles and formed the chorus. The work is still closely related to the Italian madrigal and to the Florentine Intermedi (musico dramatic interludes which form the immediate precursors of the opera), though Monteverdi and his librettist Striggio have gone that one step further by creating a drama in which singers interpret roles. The Florentine intermedi presented dramatic situations more as tableau; for instance, in the scene written by Marenzio the allocation of voices is not related to the characters presented by the text.

Still, we can make a reasonable attempt at reconstructing Monteverdi’s sound-world and people like Philip Pickett have recorded performances which are as close as as scholarship allows to Monteverdi’s intentions. But is this always necessary? Monteverdi’s music is far greater and richer than can be constrained in a small-scale, chamber performance; the temptation is irresistible to swell up the performance into something large and grander. This is inevitable when the work is presented on the vast expanses of the world’s opera houses. Emmanuelle Haim’s current version is based on a series of concert performances that she gave of the opera, but in many ways the style of performance would not be out of place in a modern opera house. This is not wrong, but it does imply an element of compromise with the genii of authentic performance.

In casting ‘Orfeo’, Haim has taken advantage of the current generation of singers who have grown up with the authentic performance stylistic revolution (after all Nigel Rogers’ first recording of the role, with Jürgen Jürgens was made back in 1974). These are singers who are equally adept at singing early opera and 19th century. In fact some of them, such as Natalie Dessay, Christopher Maltman and Ian Bostridge, are better known for roles in 19th and 20th century opera.

It is, in fact, Ian Bostridge who is the raison d’être of this performance. He brings his lieder singer’s skill to the performance and gives us a detailed picture of a neurotic, intense Orfeo. His live account of the role with Haim was riveting, but on disc, with generous support from Haim, Bostridge is strong and highly involving.

Admirers of Bostridge’s art will be content with this and delight in how his consummate intelligence sheds light on this, the first bravura tenor role. But for me, his performance was too redolent of the 19th century. His phrasing and usage of the voice are one factor in this, but another is the use of vibrato. Whereas John Mark Ainsley (for Philip Pickett) and Anthony Rolfe Johnson (for John Eliot Gardiner) rein in their vibrato and use it as another tool in their armoury of expression, for Bostridge vibrato seems an essential part of the voice. There are times when the essential core of the voice almost disappears, leaving just an expressive, vibrato-laden aura. This works well in later opera, but I find it unsatisfactory in Monteverdi; Bostridge’s expressive devices such as vibrato and ornament merge into a single whole.

Here I must come clean and admit that my favourite performance of the title role remains Nigel Rogers’ for Jürgen Jürgens, recorded in 1974. In many ways this is an unsatisfactory performance which more than shows its age. But there is something about Rogers’ performance, in such show pieces as the aria Possente Spirto, that has rarely been bettered. Some people will not like the dry quality of his voice, but I find his use of the voice thrilling and his use of ornament for expressive purpose cannot be bettered. For Philip Pickett, John Mark Ainsley has that same element of edge to his voice as Rogers and in many ways his performance is equally as thrilling. But the set pieces of Orfeo are more than just bravura and occasionally Ainsley seems to lose his way structurally. A warmer-voiced interpretation comes from Anthony Rolfe Johnson for John Eliot Gardiner, but Johnson is a seasoned performer in early music and he successfully mitigates his vibrato, using it for expressive purposes and combining it easily with ornament in a way that Bostridge does not. Also, with Bostridge I came away with the suspicion that the role might lay a little low for him. This can be a continual problem with music of this period as scholarship continually redefines our view of a role and the pitch at which it is sung. But this music must be sung in the middle of the voice, and I did not feel that it always lies in the middle of Bostridge’s. To hear him at his best, listen to the joyous Qual honor di te fia degno from Act 4.

Bostridge is not the only performance that is redolent of a later era. Natalie Dessay contributes a dignified ‘La Musica’ but again I felt she sounded too 19th century and conveyed little feeling for the words. Alice Coote is an intense Messagiera with a strong feeling for the worlds, but the role seemed to occasionally lie a little low for her. Patrizia Ciofi, who has recently come to prominence in this repertoire, contributes a lovely, touching Eurydice and Christopher Maltman is a baritone Apollo. The role lies reasonable in Maltman’s range, but the effect is to give us another rather 19th century view and his passage-work can be a little smudged. For Apollo’s duet with Orfeo, Saliam cantand’al Cielo I again wanted to return to the Jürgen Jürgens recording where Nigel Rogers’ Orfeo duets brilliantly with Ian Partridge’s Apollo.

Haim does not use the traditional doublings, so some singers get little chance to make an impression. It rather seems over luxurious to have Dessay singing only La Musica, Alice Coote only Messagiera and Veronique Gens as Proserpina.

It is Gens, a graduate of William Christie’s Les Arts Florissants, who gives an object lesson in how to perform this music. She integrates a sense of line with expressive ornament and vibrato in a way that makes one long to hear her in more of this music.

As Caronte, Mario Luperi is disappointing but then I have heard very few performers who are fully equal to this role, perhaps John Tomlinson for Gardiner come closest.

The smaller roles are all cast from strength and Pascal Bertin, Paul Agnew, Christopher Maltman and Richard Buckhard make a fine group of Pastori, displaying a strong feeling for ensemble and some lovely singing.

Haim’s view of the work can be highly dramatic, with speeds sometimes fast and sometimes rather slow; I found some of her speeds for the ritornello too slow for my ears. The musicianship of Les Sacqueboutiers and Le Concert d’Astrée is never in question and they give fine support to all of the singers. Haim adds some very vivid percussion. This is highly effective but contributes to the sense that Haim is building up the work to suit 19th century performance spaces (admittedly I heard it performed in the Barbican). There is no problem with this: what you get is a very fine performance which would do credit to any opera house; the sort of performance that one might wish to hear the next time ENO revives their production. In the end, it all boils down to our interpretation of how the opera first sounded and, more importantly, how much this sort of issue means to you.

This is a fine recording and will appeal to all admirers of Ian Bostridge. Those purists who are looking for a performance which attempts to recreate Monteverdi’s original sound-world may be disappointed and are advised to look elsewhere.

Robert Hugill

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