I can’t really imagine that it was so long ago that Harnoncourt’s first Monteverdi cycle was issued. It's more than 45 years since L’Orfeo
appeared. It caused quite a stir and the reception was mixed..Gramophone
praised him for “making Monteverdi's music sound something like the way he imagined.” There were also deviating voices who thought that his “arrangements” were a little too much. These were perforce arrangements or rather reconstructions. After all there was no extant full score of the music to any of the three operas. The vocal parts and a bass line were preserved and in the case of L’Orfeo
it is also known what instruments were available but not what they played. All reconstructions will for that reason be, more or less, clever guesses, based on general knowledge of other music from the same period. We needn’t even regard the results as “some historical monument that has been carefully preserved” as Ingo Dorfmüller says in the liner-notes to this reissue. He continues: “… what we hear is a body of present-day musicians reacting to music from a distant era and taking decisions about instrumentation, tempi and ornaments from a modern standpoint, albeit supported by their knowledge of the available source material and relevant textbooks of the time.” The outcome, if we look at L’Orfeo,
is a fresh and sometimes cheeky interpretation that makes the 400-year-old work seem anything but dated or mossy.
Harnoncourt’s wasn’t the first recording of L’Orfeo.
As early as December 1939 Italian HMV set down the work on 12 78rpm discs. Athe war Helmut Koch’s recording in German with Elfriede Trötschel as Euridice was the first LP-issue. The first historically informed recording was the Archiv/Deutsche Grammophon production in 1955 conducted by August Wenzinger who was an early advocate for authentic baroque performances. The stylish Helmut Krebs was in the title role and a young Fritz Wunderlich as one of the shepherds. I once owned the original LP set and was rather fascinated by the sounds, coming as it were, from a very distant past. I suppose it could still be a worthy inclusion in a baroque opera collection but to my knowledge it has never been issued on CD. Archiv replaced it in the LP catalogue with Jürgen Jürgens’ recording in 1973, featuring Nigel Rogers in the title role. Later, in 1986, came John Eliot Gardiner with Anthony Rolfe Johnson as Orfeo. Harnoncourt was a revelation back in 1969 and his reading still holds its spell. The main body of singers consisted of several of those taking part also in his other, even bigger, project: the recording of Bach’s cantatas, which developed in parallel with the Monteverdi project. Rotraud Hansmann, Paul Esswood, Kurt Equiluz and Max van Egmont appeared in both. They are all very good in their respective roles, as is Nigel Rogers, later singing the title role in two recordings of the work. Nikolaus Simkowsky is a frightening Caronte, but the two most spectacular contributions come from singers normally being heard in other fields. Hungarian tenor Lajos Kozma had a very wide repertoire that he sang all over the world, Pelléas and Ferrando (Così fan tutte
) being two of his signature roles. His Orfeo here is a great reading, more powerful than Krebs for Wenzinger but still very flexible and expressive. The choice of Cathy Berberian, the prima donna of the avant garde
who interpreted Berio, Maderna, Cage, Milhaud and many others, was a real hit in the dual role of Messaggiera and Speranza. Her identification and her expressive powers erase the intervening centuries and brings the role straight to the present time.
Il ritorna d’Ulisse in patria
has never reached the same popularity as the other two operas but it is in no way negligible. It is a grander opera than L’Orfeo
. Clearly Monteverdi had developed his style considerably since the earlier opera. No wonder since the two are separated by more than thirty years. The colourful scoring is even more vivid here and once or twice I thought that the instrumental solos in arias were a bit over the top. There is no denying though that this blows life into the music. This was the first complete recording of Ulisse
— a heavily abridged version had been issued on Vox in 1964 — and it was pioneering among the veritable boom of productions during the 1970s. Several of the singers from L’Orfeo
take part here as well. I must point out Nigel Rogers’ lively Eurimaco and Nikolaus Simkowsky’s magnificent Nettuno. Norma Lerer is a dramatically involved Penelope and Scottish tenor Murray Dickie, one of the great character singers of his time, is a wonderfully expressive Iro. Every appearance of his is a real treat. Ladislaus Anderko, whose name I have only seen in connection with this recording, is dramatic and powerful as Giove and the black-voiced Walker Wyatt is impressive as both Tempo and Antinoo.
About Ulisse himself I am in two minds. Sven Olof Eliasson was no baroque singer. He had an important international career, mostly in dramatic roles. I saw him in Stockholm a number of times and in particular I remember his Peter Grimes, opposite Elisabeth Söderström’s Ellen Orford, as Sergey in Shostakovich’s Katerina Ismailova
and as Walther in Götz Friedrich’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.
Here, much earlier than those performances, he scales down considerably, reminding us that he was also, once upon a time, Almaviva in Il barbiere di Siviglia.
There he is mellifluous and inward and a pleasure to hear. This Monteverdi role is one of contrasts and while, when it comes to his dramatic outbursts, he has the required steel, this also causes him a lot of strain and the vibrato widens seriously. He is however quite expressive and it is a pity that he produces some really unpleasant singing.
The last, and by general consent, the greatest of the operas is L’incoronazione di Poppea.
It was first performed in Venice during the carnival season in 1643. The original score has been lost and what survives is two copies from the 1660s. They differ from each other and also from the libretto. Whether Monteverdi wrote the opera on his own and if not how much was written by others and who they were, is open to debate. There are stylistic differences that seem to point to teamwork in one way or another. We must remember that the composer was 77 and that he died at the end of 1643. Anyway, after the carnival there was one documented revival and that was in Naples in 1651. After that it was only a title in some history books until the Venice score was unearthed in the 1880s. This led to an abridged concert performance in Paris in 1905, conducted by Vincent d’Indy and a first staged version in 1913. However, it was long a rarity in opera houses until the 1960s when Raymond Leppard’s edition was produced at Glyndebourne in 1962. There was a recording of a live performance in Zurich in 1954, conducted by the versatile Walter Goehr, and that recording even won a Grand Prix du Disque. I still have an LP with excerpts that I frequently listened to in my youth. The Leppard version, which was heavily cut was issued on HMV in 1964, conducted by John Pritchard. Richard Lewis and Magda Laszlo were Nero and Poppea. The first unabridged recording was the one in this box, issued in 1974. It was again criticised for what Denis Arnold called “over-ornamentation”, alluding to the lavish use of oboes and trumpets. I can imagine though that, since Poppea
was written for the carnival, people expected some festivitas
and what more festive than cheeky oboes and bragging trumpets?
In the cast we find a few of the names we know from the previous operas: Rotraud Hansmann as Virtù and Drusilla, Paul Esswood as Ottone and Kurt Equiluz in various comprimario roles. Several are new. Jane Gartner is a lovely Fortuna, Amore is sung by an unnamed soloist of the Wiener Sängerknaben, Giancarlo Luccardi is a magnificent Seneca – his farewell to his family is as moving as any I have heard – and then Cathy Berberian delivers another high-octane impersonation of the wronged Ottavia. The two main characters are, as in Il ritorno d’Ulisse
, singers not normally associated with early music. Helen Donath was one of the loveliest lyric sopranos for several decades. Her Sophie in Solti’s Rosenkavalier
was my first acquaintance with her and after that I have heard her in numerous other recordings of Mozart, of operetta, of lieder. Her Poppea is youthful-sounding and eager and well contrasted to the Nerone of Elisabeth Söderström. This remarkable soprano had a world career for forty years but all the time was loyal to the Stockholm Opera and covered all epochs and all styles in the soprano repertoire: a Mozartean, a Strauss specialist, the leading Janacek singer for decades and also a concert singer, not least in Scandinavian and Russian repertoire. Her distinctive timbre is immediately recognizable and not always the most beautiful in the world but few have matched her deep insight in the characters she interpreted. This Nerone stands out as a three-dimensional character and the only objection I have is that this is a woman in disguise. For her alone this whole set is a must-have and into the bargain we get three of the most rewarding baroque operas in, by and large, among the most rewarding recordings.
Another bargain is the ninth CD, “Cathy Berberian sings Monteverdi”. It was issued separately a year after Poppea
and contains a deeply satisfying recording of the celebrated Lamento d’Arianna
, the only surviving music from Arianna
, but a trend-setter in its day. The lament
even became a popular genre piece out of the opera house. The two Concerti de madrigal
are also valuable examples of Monteverdi’s genius. The rest of the disc contains excerpts from the complete operas: Messagiera’s scene from act II of L’Orfeo
and Ottavia’s two solos plus a second act scene with Ottone from L’incoronazione di Poppea
I have one objection, and a serious one at that, to the presentation of this set. The liner-notes are an interesting read but when these legendary and historically important recordings now come in a box there should have been a fuller documentation and full texts and translations. They have been available with the individual operas in earlier reissues and it is a disservice to prospective buyers not to include them. The extra costs should have been marginal.
So a big black mark for the presentation but in every other respect this is an issue that should be snapped up by anyone with an interest in baroque opera – or really any interest in music.
CD 1-2 L’Orfeo [49:13 +58:54]
Rotraud Hansmann (soprano) – La Musica/Euridice; Lajos Kozma (tenor) – Orfeo; Cathy Berberian (mezzo) – Messaggiera/Speranza; Nikolaus Simkowsky (bass) – Caronte; Eiko Katanosaka (soprano) – Proserpina/Ninfa; Jacques Villisech (bass-baritone) – Plutone; Max van Egmond (baritone) – Apollo/Pastore IV/Spirito III; Günther Theuring (tenor) – Pastore I; Nigel Rogers (tenor) – Pastore II/Spirito I; Kurt Equiluz (tenor) – Pastore III/Spirito II; Capella Antiqua München/Konrad Ruhland; Concentus Musicus Wien/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
rec. 28 February–1 December 1968, Casino Zögernitz, Vienna
CD 3-5 Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria [70:09 + 54:31
Sven Olof Eliasson (tenor) – L’humana fragilità/Ulisse; Walker Wyatt (bass) – Tempo/Antinoo; Margaret Baker-Genovesi (soprano) – Fortuna/Giunone/Melanto; Rotraud Hansmann (soprano) – Amore/Minerva; Ladislaus Anderko (tenor) – Giove; Nikolaus Simkowsky (bass) – Nettuno; Norma Lerer (mezzo) – Penelope; Kai Hansen (tenor) - Telemaco; Kurt Equiluz (tenor) – Pisandro; Paul Esswood (counter-tenor) – Anfinomo; Nigel Rogers (tenor) – Eurimaco; Max van Egmond (bass) – Eumete; Murray Dickie (tenor) – Iro; Anne-Marie Mühle (mezzo) – Ericlea; Junge Kantorei/Joachim Martini; Concentus Musicus/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
rec. April, May, June 1971, Casino Zögernitz, Vienna
CD 6-8 L’incoronazione di Poppea [71:03 + 75:23
Jane Gartner (soprano) – Fortuna; Rotraud Hansmann (soprano) – Virtù/Drusilla; Soloist of the Wiener Sängerknaben (soprano) – Amore; Helen Donath (soprano) – Poppea; Elisabeth Söderström (soprano) – Nerone; Cathy Berberian (mezzo) – Ottavia; Paul Esswood (counte-rtenor) – Ottone; Giancarlo Luccardi (bass) – Seneca; Maria Minetto (contralto) – Nutrice; Carlo Gaifa (counter-tenor) – Arnalta; Philip Langridge (tenor) – Lucano, et al/Concentus Musicus Wien/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
rec. December 1973, April 1974, Palais Rasumofsky, Vienna
CD 9 Cathy Berberian sings Monteverdi [46:19]
1. Se i languidi miei sguardi [7:14]
Lettera amorosa in genere rappresentativo. Concerto: settimo libro de madrigali, con altri genere di canti (Venice 1619)
2. Con che soavità. Concerto a una voce e istrumenti [4:28]
Concerto: settimo libro de madrigali, con altri genere di canti (Venice 1619)
3. Lamento d’Arianna: Lasciatemi morire (Venice 1623) [12:51]
4. Mira, deh mira Orfeo ... In un fiorito prato (act II) [6:37]
(with Nigel Rogers, Günther Theuring and Lajos Kozma)
L’incoronazione di Poppea
5: Disprezzata Regina (act I sc. V) [4:23]
6. Tu che dagli Avi miei ... Maestade, che prega (act II sc. IX) [6:15]
(with Paul Esswood)
7. Addio Roma (act III sc. VI) [3:55]
Cathy Berberian (mezzo), Concentus Musicus/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
rec. trs. 1-3 published 1975, trs. 4-7 from the above complete operas