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Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567 – 1643)
L’Orfeo (1609) [112.03]
Orfeo – Mark Tucker (tenor)
L Musica, Messaggiera, Proserpina – Sara Macliver (soprano)
Caronte, Plutone – Damian Whiteley (bass)
Apollo – Paul McMahon (tenor)
Eco - Brett Wymark (tenor)
Euridice – Penelope Mills (soprano)
Ninfa – Josie Ryan (soprano)
Speranza – Anna Fraser (soprano)
Pinchgut Opera; Cantillation
Orchestra of the Antipodes/Anthony Walker
rec. live 1, 3, 5, 6 December 2004, City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney.
ABC CLASSICS 476 8030 [49.27 + 62.36]

Pinchgut Opera is an Australian chamber opera company founded in 2002, when they gave performances of Handel’s Semele. They have since gone on to perform Purcell’s Fairy Queen, Rameau’s Dardanus and Monteverdi’s Orfeo. This recording of Orfeo is taken from their live performances in 2004.
Conductor Anthony Walker is co-artistic director of the company as well as being conductor of the Orchestra of the Antipodes, the period instrument ensemble which accompanies the opera. Both Walker and the Orchestra of the Antipodes are familiar to me from a number of recital discs that have found their way into my in-box.
Though recorded live, this performance has precious little stage noise or distraction from the audience. The advantage is that it does sound like a dramatic performance and does not suffer from that rather static quality which can beset performances of music of this period.
Right from the initial fanfares, Walker and his small instrumental ensemble give a crisply lively account of the score. In the faster, dance-like movements, Walker’s speeds are infectious and he adds a certain amount of percussion to the textures. But in the slower ritornelli and choral movements, I found his speeds sometimes a little on the slow side. This shows in a comparison of overall running times, where both Nigel Rogers on Archiv and Emmanuelle Haim on Virgin have shorter running times than Walker.
Of course, some of this might stem from the fact that this was a staged operatic production and that there were dramatic production reasons for the slower speeds. After all, very little is specified in Monteverdi’s score. Another area where the production affects the opera’s sound-world is the choral texture. Cantillation are a seventeen voice chamber choir and they make a lovely flexible, focused sound, shaping Monteverdi’s music beautifully even if they don’t make enough of the text. Though I enjoyed their performance I found myself regretting that they made such a finely integrated sound and wishing for more of a sense of madrigalian ensemble, with differentiated vocal lines rather than a smooth choral blend. This is a matter for preference really; after all Cantillation’s performance is excellent in its own way.
And what of the soloists? Mark Tucker sings the title role, a role which he has also sung with Philip Pickett and the New London Consort. Tucker has a big voice - well it sounds big in this music - but he phrases with style and navigates his way around Monteverdi’s complex ornamentation with apparent ease. Some of the more elaborate ornaments, e.g. in Possente Spirto sound a little smudged but that is partly because of his natural vibrato. For me, the ideal Orfeo remains Nigel Rogers with a razor-sharp edge to his voice and superb control of the ornamentation. Tucker is not quite in this class, but brings warmth and passion to the role. He makes a convincing hero. It helps that, almost alone in the cast, Tucker makes much of the words. His Orfeo is positively vibrant.
La Musica, Messagiera and Proserpina are all sung by Sara Macliver. Macliver is a wonderfully talented performer with a lovely, focused voice and a shapely feel for baroque music. In terms of sound quality, she is rarely bettered. But on previous discs I have complained about Macliver’s apparent disengagement from the text and this is the case here. I would have liked more colour in the voice to reflect the meanings of the text. This was very true of Messagieria’s scene, where much more could have been made of the dramatic effect of Striggio’s text.
This beauty of tone at the expense of dramatic vibrancy seems to have rubbed off on the other female singers. Penelope Mills (Eurydice) and Josie Ryan (Ninfa) were lovely without ever quite drawing me into the drama as much as I would have liked. It is unfair of me I know, but Anna Fraser’s Speranza just did not make my spine tingle the way others singers have in this role, particularly at the words Lasciate ogni speranza. That said, her interpretation of the role was entirely creditable.
Damian Whiteley has a dark and well defined voice and brought much character to the roles of Caronte and Plutone. Paul McMahon was a luminous Apollo, able to match the brilliance of his tone to that of Mark Tucker in the glorious final duet.
Given that this is a live record of staged performances, it is perhaps unfair of me to be too critical. But a critic lives by comparison and this is a strong, involving production which stands up well to other performances even if it is not first choice for the library. For those interested in the state of baroque opera in the Antipodes, it is essential listening.
Robert Hugill




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