thoughtful, emotionally fleet and powerfully recorded
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Antonio CESTI (1623-1669) L’Orontea (1656)
Orontea – Paula Murrihy
Creonte – Seabstian Geyer
Tibirno / Amore – Juanita Lascarro
Aristea – Guy de Mey
Alidoro – Xavier Sabata
Gelone – Simon Bailey
Corindo – Matthias Rexroth
Silandra – Louise Alder
Giacinta – Kateryna Kasper
Filosofia – Katharina Megiera
Frankfurter Opern- und Museumorchester & Monteverdi-Continuo-Ensemble/Ivor Bolton
rec. live, February – March 2015, Oper Frankfurt
Libretto only in Italian enclosed OEHMS CLASSICS OC965 [3 CDs: 175:21]
L’Orontea was one of the most popular operas of the 17th century, when that genre was still in its relative infancy. Antonio Cesti’s later, slightly better known stage work, Il pomo d’oro, was one of the most lavish of that era. As a musical heir to Monteverdi and a younger contemporary of Cavalli, honing his operatic skills in Venice, Cesti built upon that experience to compose a series of operas for the court of Archduke Ferdinard Karl in his Tyrolean capital, Innsbruck, including L’Orontea in 1656 (though other, contested sources, suggest that it had been written in Venice in 1649).
Its style and structure will be familiar to those who already know any of the operas of Monteverdi, and Cavalli in particular—it bears all the elements of opera buffa with its conflicting love interests, a comically drunken servant, disguises, the coincidental discovery of the royal origins of Alidoro’s birth making him a suitable consort for Queen Orontea, and a travesti role for tenor taking on the role of a mature, lusty woman. But it also anticipates the conventions of high Baroque opera seria with such contortions in plot, and increasingly expansive monologues reflecting upon the action of the drama that would come to be formalised in the regular structure and pattern of the da capo aria. Indeed Orontea’s melancholic arioso Intorno all’idol mio—in which she muses upon her emotional instability, having fallen in love with Alidoro—almost sounds as though it comes from one of Handel’s operas. Perhaps that it is what prompted Charles Burney to print it in his famous history of music when Handel’s shadow still loomed large, preserving the only fragment from the work until the rediscovery of four manuscript sources in the 1950s.
This live recording from Frankfurt’s opera house is based upon a more recently discovered score held at Wellesley College, and so there are some differences from the previous recording of the work by René Jacobs in 1982. There is a lot of presence on this new set, capturing the cut and thrust of a real performance, but picking up minimal noise from stage or audience (applause is only retained at the end of the last Act). In particular Ivor Bolton generally secures musical variety and urgency from the Frankfurter Opern- und Museumorchester in the numerous instrumental interludes which punctuate the action. But there is less of a sense of dramatic occasion in Act Two than in those on either side of it. That is perhaps on account of a less committed performance on the particular night of its run from which that part of the recording was taken, although another cause may be the fairly static structure of this Act, with a lot of dialogue, broken up by monologues from time to time, but little real incident.
The soloists are well cast, inhabiting the frequently mercurial demands of their parts with a good, sprightly temper, not least Paula Murrihy as Orontea. She manages to be playful even as she high-mindedly disavows the distractions of love, before expressing the sincere ardour of her passion as she succumbs to her feelings for Alidoro. Xavier Sabata sings the latter part with an attractively quiet but authoritative manner which makes sense of the allure he holds for Orontea, as well as other characters. Silandra is one such, and Louise Alder wins the listener’s sympathy in her expressive, though ultimately futile, yearning for the young soldier, but Matthias Rexroth makes the part of Corindo a more than second best as the character with whom she is eventually paired off. Simon Bailey’s comic virtuosity in realising the dishevelled servant Gelone deserves to win plaudits for the way that he brings to life his tomfoolery convincingly, sometimes shifting between two musical registers within a single passage. Guy de Mey demonstrates similar agility in the drag role of Aristea.
The voices sometimes sound recessed in relation to the orchestra—doubtless inevitably so as they move around the stage—and so Jacobs’s recording gives a more consistently immediate ambience, but Bolton’s is clearly the more dramatic reading, responding to the action taking place on stage. Jacobs’s instrumental interludes sound somewhat better upholstered, perhaps with a slightly larger ensemble, but those provided by the Frankfurt house ensemble create an opulent enough sound and, more to the point, are animated with more vigour. The continuo accompaniment—by far the most important non-vocal strand in this as in every other opera in this period—is realised with lithe, but undemonstrative sobriety so as not to detract from the singers, and sustains the pace and tension of the performance admirably. Jacobs’s recording might still retain a place for its measured, respectful approach to the score, but those listeners who prefer the grit of an animated performance in the theatre will warm to this new version more. It is a shame, however, that no English translation is made available, either in the booklet or online, as that would aid appreciation of the opera’s intricate, fast-paced action. A minor compensation is the selection of pictures from the production in the booklet, peopled with figures wearing wings, and garish, over-sized heads of cupids (resembling a puffed-up, cherubic Doris Day with their rouged cheeks and blond curls), and seemingly haunting every scene.
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