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Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643)
L’Orfeo - Favola in musica rappresentata in Mantova l’anno 1607
Emiliano Gonzalez Toro (ten) - Orfeo; Emõke Barath (sop) - Euridice, Musica;
Natalie Pérez (mezzo-sop.) –Messenger; Alix le Saux (mezzo-sop.) - Speranza, Pastore; Jérôme Varnier (bass) – Caronte, Spirito; Mathilde Etienne (sop) - Proserpina; Nicolas Brooymans (bass) - Pluto, Pastore; Fulvio Bettini (bar) - Apollo, Spirito, Eco; Zachary Wilder (ten) - Pastore, 1st Spirito;
Juan Sancho (ten) – Pastore, 2nd Spirito; Alicia Arno (sop) - Ninfa
Ensemble vocal de Poche
I Gemelli
rec. 2020, Corum, Montpellier, France
NAÏVE V7176 [42.58 + 53.36]

There are two things you should realise about Monteverdi’s Orfeo. First, it is called ‘La favola in musica’; everyone knew the story, of course, so what mattered was how the text, the music and the performers conveyed its action and the meaning of the narrative, particularly for the accompanied monody. Secondly, this is not the first opera but the first great opera, completed and performed 1607 in Mantua and published two years later. Before then, there had been something approaching operas as we know them, not least Euridice (1600) by Jacob Peri (d.1633). He is often called the inventor of opera but his work now appears to be rather lacking in a strong sense of drama and even rather severe. However, Monteverdi’s Fifth Book of Madrigals (1605) is, in part, a series of small dramas and I remember that Anthony Rooley’s Consort of Musick did perform them occasionally with actions and costumes.

So what about this new recording? Is there any reason not to purchase it if you don’t have a version, or even if you do?  I say a resounding no.

I am familiar with only two other versions: one from 1968 directed by Nicholas Harnoncourt, some of which I have listened to again, and in many ways it stands up quite well (my version is in Teldec’s Opera collection, nla). Cathy Berberian is the star name and she sings the ‘Messenger’ and ‘Hope’. Vocally, however, she now sounds rather dated and stilted. The instrumental work, however, is pleasing. The John Eliot Gardiner version with the English Baroque Soloists (on Archiv) was the one of choice for teaching purposes a few years ago, but I now find it curiously uninteresting. However, much to my great pleasure, I found this new version refreshing and gripping.

There are two things, which I would like to suggest you especially listen out for. The first is how the recitatives are accompanied - whether your interest is maintained as here with a busy background of continuo and strings and whether the text is conveyed and expressed more fully with the help of the instruments - and secondly I would also ask you to hear Orfeo’s famous moment in Act III when he is persuading Charon, via a six minute ‘aria’ to allow him to cross the river Styx, the beauty of his song lulling the boatman to sleep and convincing Proserpina to ask Pluto for pity.

The vocal range required for the part of Orfeo is quite extreme and I have to say that Emiliano Gonzalez Toro is an ideal choice with his consistent tone quality, command of the language, the thoughtful stresses of the text and his clarity of diction. He writes touchingly that he has wanted to perform the part of Orfeo ever since his student days twenty years ago. It was very fortunate for all, therefore, that the recording could be made just before the outbreak of Covid 19.

In addition, I cannot fault any of the cast and the female voices especially are airy, nimble and expressive.

Monteverdi demands a quite large and varied ‘orchestra’ creating a strong sense of scenic definition, changing to suit the mood of the words. The instrumental ensemble, ‘I Gemelli,’ consists of about thirty players and they mostly follow the composer’s orchestral colours and apparently played an important role in the preparation of the Orfeo project. So, for example, gods and allegorical figures were accompanied by lutes, viols, cornets, recorders etc. and pastoral scenes always included parts for wind instruments. The ensemble ‘Vocal de Poche’, which consist of eight young, fresh voices, were also involved in the overall conception.

On the negative side, I find the tempo of the chorus interpolations in Act 1, although meant to be joyous at Orfeo’s wedding, to be rushed and breathless and the instrumental work inevitably lacking in clear detail. I would also have liked some moments of reflection to be built in, perhaps more rubato in the recits, but Emiliano Gonzalez Toro in his essay ‘In the beginning was the word’ points out that this is quite deliberate as, he reckons, Monteverdi has built rubato into the score by “giving an impression of freedom and ease” because he “calculated everything down to the last demisemiquaver” and here he also referring to the ornamentation. I’m not sure if I really appreciate the point or the result.

Talking of the booklet and the essay, there are two further fascinating and quite technical ones by Mathilde Etienne, who also plays Proserpina, and one on the very unusual ‘ceterone’, accompanied by photographs, by Joël Dugot. The texts are clearly given and well translated and the precise placing of the Sinfonias and Ritornelli is also given. There are also photos of the performers and their biographies.

I cannot recommend this performance enough and although there are several others to be much enjoyed, this new one should become a classic in due course.

Gary Higginson

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