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Luigi ROSSI (1598?-1653)
L’Orfeo (tragicommedia in three acts, Palais-Royal de Paris, 2 March 1647)
Allabastrina/Elena Sartori (artistic and musical direction)
rec. Auditorium Castaneum di Velturno, Bolzano, Italy, 22-28 August, 28-29 December 2019 DDD
PDF booklet of the texts, plot summary (no translation of the libretto) included with download
Reviewed as downloaded from press preview
GLOSSA GCD923903 [3 CDs: 79:35 + 79:47 + 76:29]

The origins of opera in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries in Italy continue to interest lovers of the genre - and of music more generally. The term ‘opera’ (as understood today) wasn’t recorded until 1639. But it is accepted that what we now know as a particularly felicitous combination of music and theatre in fact began with often quite extended and spectacular performances between the acts of plays at Italian (predominantly Florentine) courts. These were known as intermedii (singular intermedio). Jacopo Peri’s (1561-1633) Dafne is generally credited with being the first opera as we have subsequently come to recognise the genre. It was first performed at the very end of the sixteenth century, in 1598.

That’s probably the year in which Luigi Rossi (who died in 1653) was born. There are about 50 recordings on which works by Rossi appear, but only three devoted exclusively to the composer. One of these is a Blu-Ray/DVD from Harmonia Mundi (9859058) of the work under review here: his L’Orfeo, the first recording of which was by Les Arts Florissants and William Christie; it is no longer available, except as a download, which Qobuz offer in lossless sound for £20.99 (no booklet).

The myth of Orpheus originated in pre-Classical Greece. It celebrates the deeds, dedication and ultimate downfall of the lover, musician, poet and prophet - and has inspired many versions down to the present day… most recently Harrison Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus.

Rossi’s (and librettist Francesco Buti’s) version of the familiar story also treats of Orpheus’ loss of Eurydice - twice: once by her death and again when Orpheus disobeys the exhortation not to look back as he leads her out of the underworld. But it is supplemented by a secondary plot. This both gives Eurydice another admirer: Aristeo, whose feelings are unrequited, and has Venus protecting Orpheus so as to take revenge on Apollo.

There seems to be every chance that these characters were introduced because specific ‘star’ singers were present and available in March 1647 at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal in Paris, when Rossi’s L’Orfeo was first staged… in fact it was the first opera specifically written for the French court of Louis XIV. More than 200 people are thought to have worked on a magnificent and spectacular staging for the performance, which lasted six hours.

After working for the Borghese and Barberini dynasties in Florence and Rome respectively, Rossi moved to France only the year before L’Orfeo’s première - a sign of how swiftly he became accepted and admired in that country.

The high-resolution (WAV) format of this three-CD release from Glossa is here reviewed. It lasts just under four hours and is an all-Italian enterprise. A dozen and a half solo singers and the ensemble Allabastrina perform under its conductor and director, Elena Sartori; the main roles are taken by specialists in the idiom, Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli (Orfeo) and Emanuela Galli (Eurydice).

Rossi’s L’Orfeo was recorded in the northern Italian city of Bolzano at two sets of sessions in 2019. Allabastrina appears to have but two other recordings available in the current catalogue - of music by Telemann and Lully.

It would be as well to set aside any preconception that this release of Rossi’s L’Orfeo is a (mere) historical curiosity. Even lacking familiarity with Monteverdi’s opera of the same name - from 40 years earlier - you will be struck by the directness and beauty of Rossi’s music. Sartori and her forces have clearly imposed their own stamp on the interpretation.

For instance, there is a delicacy and gentleness to the soloists’ arias… listen to the tender dialogue between Aristeo and the Satyr, Questa canzon è fatta at the end of the third scene in Act I [CD.1 tr.17], for example. There is complete involvement and total interaction between the two. Humanity - despite the myth’s reference to archetype and symbolism - is present throughout this recording.

Indeed, this is an interpretation which prizes drama and projection. These include unobtrusive stage and sound effects (such as those in the prologue - and again, quite alarmingly, perhaps, in the third scene of Act III [CD.3 tr.3]). There is a strong sense that we are at the centre of the action. We are happily in the world of the lovers. Yet neither passion nor loss is overplayed. The sinuous singing of both principal and supporting singers, as well as Filippo Pantieri’s pointed and virtuosic continuo with Allabastrina’s strings and wind players, impress with no spurious dazzling.

Emanuela Galli’s Eurydice is by and large very good: her voice is limpid, rounded, expressive and full of just the right amount of projection and restraint. She never seems to tire, and conveys the dedication (to Orpheus) which makes the myth such a compelling one, though at times an extra injection of vibrato can seem like inexactitude. Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli (Orfeo) is very slightly ‘grainier’, which perhaps sounds richer, fuller and more authoritative. The fact that the role is written for a soprano accords with seventeenth century convention; this saw such a character as Orpheus as effectively an anti-hero and (thus) potentially weak. Sartori makes this a plausible interpretation of Orpheus’ conduct and fallibility towards Eurydice; it’s how he loses her. There are many other examples of welcome contrast in characterisation throughout the opera.

Other singers inject a mixture of realism with fully-realised persona… the old woman of Alessandro Giangrande, for example, verges on the cackling. Sartori wanted to avoid the dramatic distance which the (implied) rhetoric of Monteverdi’s chromaticism inevitably emphasises. Her conception and the ways in which she has carefully - and successfully - drawn out and celebrated the essence of Rossi’s achievement are closer to the intimacy and discomfiting hothouse of Monteverdi’s Incoronazione di Poppea, which was first performed only four years before this L’Orfeo. In order to underline what Rossi was doing - regardless of the older composer and in his own right - Sartori lets the singers have their heads in terms of characterisation. They fill out their roles in similar ways. Mauro Borgioni’s Satiro is unctuous; Paola Valentina Molinari’s Aristeo fragile, for instance.

These colours bring a realism to the dialogues which never fails to hold our attention. Significantly, the tone of dialogue never strays into the colloquial, which would be inappropriate. At the same time, the consistency which each singer achieves throughout their performance effectively – and rightly – discourages us from attempting to find in Rossi the psychological depth which Monteverdi achieved as he effectively reinforced the Classical strengths of the myth. Rossi’s characters one could easily have run into any day in Paris, Rome or Venice.

On the other hand, such an approach helps to appreciate dramatic contrasts (tragic vs comic, satirical vs honourable) in Rossi’s work. We are left - yet again - with the inescapable feeling that Rossi was his own person, was writing what he wanted and what he saw fit, rather than what Louis (or Mazarin) at the Court dictated.

At the same time, the principals aim for an ensemble performance, rather than attempting to outshine individually. The diction and articulation of Buti’s text is exemplary: where there must be humour, it is neither underplayed nor inappropriately conspicuous. Where reflection or reflexive melancholy, the singing is not melodramatic, exaggerated or self-regarding. In such moments of tension as Come tal liquore è nato in the ‘presagio di morte’ (omen of death) towards the end of Act I [CD.1 tr.30] the performers achieve exactly the detachment and dignity underlying the Classical ideals of the Orpheus myth… a timelessness, sense of inevitability - yet a resentment of what happens, which must surely have impressed Rossi’s audiences, and should those of the twenty-first century.

Comparisons with Monteverdi’s masterpiece are inevitable, of course. Although some of Rossi’s writing was clearly inspired by the older composer’s Orfeo, Orfeo and Eurydice’s duet Se così dunque Amor fa [CD.1 tr.31], for instance, Rossi’s style is plainer, less florid and frankly somewhat less inspired or original than Monteverdi’s. Not that anything in this opera lacks interest or engagement. Sartori brings out the music’s drive and direction.

This is necessary in a story as poignant - and, if you like, as didactic - as Orpheus’s. Sartori privileges its liquid yet decisive refinement and beauty. Perhaps most significantly, she achieves a blend which works musically to convey what Rossi must have felt was needed in mid seventeenth century Paris to make the most of the ancient Greek myth, in which individuals’ actions reveal to those watching that there are (in modern parlance) ‘consequences’. For example, one wonders just how sympathetic Rossi must have been to Orpheus’ ultimate fate. Unlike some retellings of the myth, Buti has the characters ascend to heaven.

As one attends to characterisation and individuality of the singers in the opera, one is likely to conclude that they are all in one way or another personifications of love. This completely removes the need to look for rhetoric in Rossi’s writing, which Sartori describes as ‘irregular’. This is in no sense negative. At times the dances assume an almost ‘folk’-like simplicity. So one feels that if Rossi’s L’Orfeo had been more rough and ready than it is, Sartori would have coped well, and made it the same delightful experience.

You are also likely to be struck by the variety of accompanying instruments that make up the ensemble performing here (the source used for this performance is msQ V 51 at the Vatican’s Biblioteca Apostolica): more than a dozen string players, four flutes, theorbo, Baroque guitar, archlute, harp, two percussionists, dulcian and the aforementioned harpsichord and organ. These add immense colour and depth to each number and at times draw our attention their way because of the richness of sound and idiomatic playing of the soloists.

The death of Eurydice [CD.2 tr.15] is almost as poignant, delicate, beautiful and moving as any comparable scene in Monteverdi. Rossi uses less chromaticism and rubato than does Monteverdi. But he achieves pathos and drama nevertheless. The same goes for the lovely purely instrumental moments, such as shortly afterwards, as Orpheus laments his loss [CD.2 tr.17]. Even though Sartori takes this a little slowly, perhaps, Orpheus’ sorrow is nigh uncontrollable - which makes one want to suspend listening for a moment or two.

In other words, this is a performance well worth approaching as one would approach any established (early) opera. Try and forget Monteverdi. Appreciate the life and energy which the singers put into their singing. Although at times some soloists are a touch ‘wayward’ in pitch… soprano Martina Zaccarin’s Sospetto is alarmingly ‘wobbly’ - for instance in the terzetto of Act III, Scene 7 [CD.3 tr.9]. And marvel at the superbly sensitive and generous instrumental playing. Variety, range and depth are all there. This is a major work which deserves its place in the repertoire. The forces here do it proud and make this a version to be recommended.

The acoustic, of Bolzano’s Castaneum di Velturno auditorium is spacious, pleasantly resonant without offering spurious ‘atmosphere’. The result of careful miking of all performers is a performance which has both appropriate immediacy and a sense of detachment and dignity, as alluded to hitherto to enhance the Classical tenor of this myth. A 90-page PDF comes with the download; it contains full details of the performers and a comprehensive track listing; but a rather minimal set of ‘remarks’ on the background, context and interpretation in four languages. One feels this could have benefited from being fuller - so as to provide more on Rossi’s achievement.

Despite this, and some dubious vocal contributions, this offering from Glossa is very welcome. There is a polish mixed with spontaneity in the music-making from start to finish. The individualism of the singers’ styles and everyone’s obvious delight in the idiom is judiciously and lovingly allowed by Sartori to colour the performance without its ever becoming quirky or interfering with what, after all, is a weighty and affecting work. L’Orfeo will appeal not only to those curious about the development of early opera, not only as an addition to the huge repertoire of the Orpheus myth, but also to anyone who values sustained singing and playing which has purpose, warmth and stature.

Mark Sealey

Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli (soprano) - Orfeo
Emanuela Galli (soprano) - Eurydice, Ombra di Eurydice
Paola Valentina Molinari (soprano) - Aristeo
Mauro Borgioni (baritone) - Satiro
Alessandro Giangrande (countertenor) - Momo, La Vecchia
Alessio Tosi (tenor) - Endimione, Apollo
Clarissa Reali (soprano) - Nutrice, Giunone
Arianna Stornello (soprano) - Venere, Proserpina
Rocco Lia (bass) - Augure, Plutone
Sara Bino (soprano) - Amore
Gabriella Martellacci (contralto) - Gelosia
Raffaele Giordani (tenor) - Giove
Marta Fumagalli (mezzo) - Mercurio
Martina Zaccarin (soprano) - Sospetto
Michele Lo Bianco (soprano) - Caronte, Bacco
Maila Fulignati (soprano) - Vittoria
Caterina Dellaere (mezzo) - Himeneo
Martina Zaccarin (soprano) - Gratia Prima, Parca Seconda
Clarissa Reali (soprano) - Gratia Seconda



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