Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643)
L’Orfeo: Favola in Musica, SV318 (1607)
David Hurley – (countertenor) la Musica
Charles Daniels (tenor) - Orfeo
Faye Newton (soprano) - Euridice
Emily van Evera (soprano) - Messaggiera/Proserpina
Clare Wilkinson (mezzo-soprano) - Speranza
Curtis Streetman (bass) - Caronte
Christopher Purves (bass) - Plutone
Guy Pelc (baritone) - Apollo
Simon Wall (tenor) – Pastor/Eco
Taverner Consort and Players/Andrew Parrott
rec. St Michael and All Angels, Summertown, Oxford, 23-38 July, 2012. DDD.
Booklet with texts and translations included
AVIE AV2278 [2 CDs: 47:17 + 56:15]

This recording of L’Orfeo, released to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Taverner Consort, stands as a tribute to director Andrew Parrott’s scholarly research and ability to bring music of this period to life. I’m surprised to discover that although I wrote most of the review which I promised some time ago and reiterated the promise in Download News 2015/6 I never finished it. The same thing happened with my review of Rinaldo Alessandrini’s La Scala blu-ray recording of L’Orfeo (Opus Arte) but that’s more easily explained: put off by the stilted production, I nevertheless came to enjoy it very much as an audio-only experience.

Andrew Parrott’s now vintage recording of the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610 (budget-price Virgin twofer 5616622 – review) remains my benchmark for that work, so I was not in the least surprised to find this new recording of L’Orfeo joining a distinguished list of recordings of that work:

Ian Bostridge, Natalie Dessay, Patrizia Ciofi, Le Concert d’Astre/Emmanuelle Ham, recently reissued at lower mid-price on Virgin Opera 9482532 – review, August 2011/2 Download Roundup and March 2012/1 Download Roundup.

Monica Piccini, Sara Mingardo, Luca Dordoli, Concerto Italiano/Rinaldo Alessandrini, Nave OP30439

Emanuela Galli, Mirko Guadagnini, la Venexiana/Claudio Cavina, Glossa GCD920913

Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Julianne Baird, Lynne Dawson, Anne Sofie von Otter, English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner, DG Archiv 4192502 – for this and the Nave and Glossa recordings, February 2010 Download Roundup

Theresa Caudle, Emma Kirkby, Patrizia Kwella, Chiaroscuro, London Baroque/Nigel Rogers and Charles Medlam, EMI – a classic of much the same vintage as the Parrott Vespers, until recently available inexpensively but now available as a download only for rather more than the CDs used to cost. Surely this classic recording must be scheduled for reissue.

Furio Zunasi, Sara Mingardo, La Capella Reial de Catalunya, Le Concert des Nations/Jordi Savall on DVD – review – or SACD and download – Download News 2015/6.

I must say at the outset that I could be very happy with any one of these recordings on my desert island; each has its virtues – for example, the Alessandrini CDs will appeal more to those who like their Monteverdi dramatic, often fast and furious, while the Cavina will be the better choice for those who like the music to sound more refined. Those for whom Emma Kirkby can do no wrong – myself included – will have to choose the Medlam version, if only to hear Kirkby in the role of la Musica. For that and for many other reasons I shall not be parting with my EMI Reflexe CDs of that recording or making room on my hard drive by deleting any one of the other listed versions.

The documentation in the Avie booklet is more than adequate but those unfamiliar with L’Orfeo might be well advised to listen to Thomas Smillie’s valuable Introduction, narrated by David Timson, with musical illustrations from L’Orfeo and other works, on Naxos 8.558174. You may not wish to purchase a CD that you will probably listen to only once, but if you subscribe to Naxos Music Library it’s available there though not, surprisingly, from Naxos’s new and improved

The illustrations in that introduction are taken from Sergio Vartolo’s 1996 recording on Naxos 8.554094/5, a version which I wouldn’t otherwise have considered, but I was impressed by the extracts on the Introduction CD and it would make a good budget-price recommendation. You’ll find some generally very favourable comments on this recording in Gran Forlsing’s review of Vartolo’s later Brilliant Classics set (94373).

I very much enjoyed Sergio Vartolo’s recording of Monteverdi’s later opera, Il Ritorno d’Ulisse, also on Brilliant (93104 – see my review of Ulisse conducted by William Christie on Dynamic DVD 33641), so his L’Orfeo should be well worth considering at less than 9. Unfortunately his recording of Ulisse is now download only and more expensive than when it was available, with first-class documentation, on CD. Subscribers can stream the Brilliant box set of all three Monteverdi operas albeit without texts – here – and it can be purchased for download for 19.99. I sampled it there and liked what I heard.

I was looking forward to something of a Monteverdi-fest, with the various versions which I possess lined up as it were for inspection, but it soon became apparent that the new recording is so good that it need only be considered in its own right without detailed comparison.

The first consideration is one of size. L’Orfeo can be made to look and sound grand in the opera house, but the notes in the Avie booklet remind us that the first performance was small-scale indeed, taking place in what an eye witness described as a sala, or room of moderate proportions in the Ducal Palace. It may well be that this accounts for the existence of an alternative ending in which Orfeo narrowly escapes from the bacchantes who seek to tear him apart, as per the original classical myth. We don’t have the music for this, but we do have the words which they sang on that first night and they are included on the Naxos recording, albeit without trying to reconstruct the music.

That unhappy ending seems to have been forced upon Monteverdi by circumstances, however, and it’s surely right to prefer the fortunate outcome of the version which he published in 1609, especially as Monteverdi is known to have favoured happy endings. The ending for which we now have the music involves the descent of Apollo and his accompanying Orfeo to his heavenly abode, accompanied by a good deal of moralising about excessive joy and excessive grief – a deus ex machina easily contrived on stage but hardly possible in the Ducal sala.

The new recording may be less grandiose than you may be accustomed to but, much as I miss the high drama of the Rogers/Medlam recording, the more intimate approach here works very well indeed, especially as the result results not so much in austerity as in immediacy. I can’t quite claim that every word is clearly heard, but we get much closer to that ideal than usual.

CD1 opens with a susurration of voices as if an expectant audience were settling down, a noise which even continues into the first statement of the Sinfonia. I thought the effect rather odd, however well such audience noise works on a DVD or blu-ray recording of a live performance, but it’s just about my only complaint and it’s much less of a nuisance than watching the stilted action on the Alessandrini blu-ray.

David Hurley is a pure-toned, ethereal but powerful singer of the Prologue, excelled only by the divine Emma Kirkby on the Medlam recording – a set much missed, not just for the sake of Emma Kirkby but also for Nigel Rogers’ more dramatic and more ornamented rendition of the part of Orfeo.

The Second Shepherd has the unenviable task of opening the opera proper with his evocation of the happy day of the nuptials. That lot falls not always happily, as to the tenor in Messiah but Simon Wall makes an excellent impression. Anna Dennis (Ninfa) is equally impressive, the chorus offer fine support, and the Second Shepherd is well differentiated from the first (Rodrigo del Pozo, high tenor). Even before the entry of Orfeo, then, everything is clearly in place for a recording that will be well worth hearing. All the smaller roles, including the other shepherds, are very well sung, as are the choruses.

It’s upon the shoulders of Orfeo himself that the principal singing burden falls, performed here, as almost certainly on the first night, by a tenor, Charles Daniels. Daniels is a versatile singer with a lengthy discography, singing in roles as diverse as an Attendant on Pleasure in Handel’s Choice of Hercules (Hyperion CDA67298), the Purcell Odes and Welcome Songs (Hyperion CDS44031/8) and Rubbra’s Amoretti (Naxos 8.572286). He cut his teeth in Italian music of Monteverdi’s time in the original Paul McCreesh recording of A Venetian Coronation, on Erato/Virgin Classics – review – and the Parrott recording of the Monteverdi Vespers. These are good precedents indeed, from which you might rightly deduce that his Orfeo is one of the best.

Daniels’ voice might be deemed a little too small for the opera house, but that’s a matter of conscious choice rather than inadequacy. Try his Rosa del ciel (CD1, track 5) if you can. Later he’s vocally in the shadow of Charon: even though Curtis Streetman is not the most frightening singer in that role. Daniels has energy in reserve when it’s really called for, as on CD2, track 8, where he appeals to the powers of Hell, Rendetemi il mio ben, Tartarei Numi, and CD2, track 15, when he has lost Euridice again.

Unusually Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo begins before the death of Euridice, offering Faye Newton the chance to sing beautifully as she expresses her love for Orfeo at the beginning of Act I.

Like Charles Daniels, Emily van Evera, here in the dual role of Messenger and Proserpina is a survivor from the Parrott Monteverdi Vespers. Her ethereal tones, undiminished from that earlier recording, are almost too good for these small roles.

If Curtis Streetman is not the most frightening Charon – that’s probably the singer on the Naxos recording who reminds us of Virgil’s vivid description, a clear inspiration for the libretto of L’Orfeo* – nor is Christopher Purves as Pluto. Those are small reservations, however, in the case of a performance of this general quality of an important landmark in the development of opera.

The Avie recording is excellent, capturing the intimate style of the performance even as heard immediately after the Opus Arte blu-ray and using the same Cambridge Audio player which is such an excellent medium for all CD, SACD, DVD and blu-ray. The CDs are housed in a slimline case but the consequence of having a large booklet is that the whole has to be contained in a slip-case, thus precluding its being housed in the usual CD tray.

It’s impossible to recommend a single recording of L’Orfeo. My own top choice would still be the EMI Medlam and I very much hope to see it restored by Warner to the catalogue. If you can still find the Vartolo recording on Brilliant Classics at budget price that, too, is well worth considering along with the others which I have listed. Parrott and his team on Avie, however, are not far behind the best of these and could well be your first choice.

* portitor has horrendus aquas et flumina servat
terribili squalore Charon, cui plurima mento
canities inculta iacet, stant lumina flamma,
sordidus ex umeris nodo dependet amictus.

[The fearsome ferryman, Charon, guards these waters and rivers in dreadful squalor; a mass of grey hair lies unkempt on his chin, his eyes are fixed with flames, a dirty cloak hangs from a knot on his shoulders. neid VI, 298-301]

Dante for once is less dramatic than his mentor Virgil, though he retains the burning eyes: Caron dimonio, con occhi di bragia … [Inferno III 109].

Brian Wilson

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