Put simply, Monteverdi’s
musical career was nothing less than
spectacular: he revolutionized Western
harmony, played a major role in the
development and dissemination of a new
genre — opera — and composed major works
still heard regularly. Every time the
curtain rises in an opera house or a
theory student labels a dominant seventh
chord, Monteverdi’s influence is in
Premiered in 1607 at
the Mantuan court, L’Orfeo stands
as one of Monteverdi’s biggest operatic
successes. As the liner notes that accompany
this recording explain, this work represents
a "masterly resolution to the debate
between partisans of the text on one
hand and of music on the other."
In other words, Monteverdi’s writing
strikes an incredible balance between
intelligibility and expression of words
and beautiful musical construction.
This recording, which
uses the forces of an army of singers,
presents a wonderful reading of Monteverdi’s
work. The standouts are, oddly enough,
not the solo singers. Instead, Harnoncourt’s
period instrument ensembles as well
as the Capella Antiqua München
give the most riveting performances.
Harnoncourt finds a distinctive and
captivating sound that fits the music
beautifully. The period instruments
imbue the music with a fascinating freshness
— one is reminded of Harnoncourt’s feelings
about period instruments. Instead of
using them solely for "historical"
purposes, he feels that they are the
best instruments on which to play the
music. This pragmatic (and non-pedantic)
approach is immediately understandable.
Harnoncourt has quite a feeling for
the rhythmic intricacy that characterizes
Monteverdi’s music. His duple to triple
shifts are seamless, and the tempi he
chooses are invigorating without being
rushed. All the details are audible
without sounding studied. Monteverdi’s
modal harmonies strike listeners as
occasionally excruciating; however,
under Harnoncourt’s careful leadership,
they sound expressive and exquisite.
The choruses are performed with utmost
precision. Ensemble problems are non-existent,
consonants are uniformly executed, and
balance is impeccable.
The singers included
on this recording are adequate, but
somewhat less than stellar. Lajos Kozma,
as Orfeo, is unfortunately unsatisfying.
His sound is pinched and often over-brightened
to the point that diction is unintelligible.
Kozma takes some amazing risks with
varying vocal color to match the expression
required by the text, and many times,
they pay off. His performance, however,
is one of the weakest here.
The rest of the singers
give more than adequate performances.
Rotraud Hansmann as Euridice sings beautifully
with crisp diction and much attention
to inflection. Her singing helps atone
for some of the less than spectacular
moments provided by her male opposite.
This recording is a
mixed bag. Great orchestral playing
makes it worth owning. However, collectors
interested in a recording notable for
its solo singing may be better off looking