Gardiner and a strong cast bring Monteverdi’s “L’Orfeo” to life
Not many early music concerts are sell-out attractions as with programs of Romantic standards. But for a big-ticket item to crown the “Before Bach” series, Carnegie Hall could hardly have done better than Friday night’s offering. Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, performed by the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir under the baton of Sir John Eliot Gardiner, eminence grise of the period performance movement (and founder of both groups), proved a serious draw.
The musicians’ ability and Gardiner’s understanding and appreciation of the material were certainly evident, and yet the performance did not always impact as deeply as it could have. L’Orfeo, premiered in 1607, is widely considered to be the first “great” opera (it is, at any rate, the earliest opera still performed with any regularity) and its high points were brilliant on Friday, but the valleys in between seemed to stretchinterminably, a problem caused by some combination of energy and pacing. The work is only about two hours in total (performed here without intermission) but by the start of the fifth act a judicious cut or two was starting to seem like a reasonable idea.
The quality of playing and singing, though, was consistently high. For ears used to a modern orchestra, the size, balance, and color of an ensemble of this configuration can take some adjusting–the strings are significantly darker and quieter, and there is less gleam to the brass. But once that adjustment happens, one can hear the merit of performing the work with authentic instrumentation: its natural colors come through in a way that could never be captured with modern instruments. The Monteverdi Choir sounded unfailingly superb, projecting a cool, clear tone in perfect intonation.
Strong principals helped to bring the music to life, beginning with Krystian Adam’s portrayal of the title character. There is an almost heroic quality to his tenor, a full, solid voice, with energy in it. He showed solid, if somewhat muscled fioritura during his monologue on the banks of the Styx, urgent fire in his plea to Pluto, and finally fervid passion in his lament “Questi i campi di Tracia,” a refreshing change of pace from what had been a largely turgid fourth act.
Marian Flores, doubling up as Hope, and Euridice, showed a soprano that beamed like a ray of light. She had different vocal characterizations for each of her roles, the darkest and warmest coming as La Speranza, leading Orfeo into the underworld.
The supporting cast was no less compelling. Bass Gianluca Burrato’s booming, smoldering voice defined authority, reaching all the low notes of Caronte’s part, later projecting a majestic darkness as Plutone. Andrew Tortise’s Deus ex Machina moment as Apollo showed off a bright, clear voice and tender phrasing. He sang with tremendous power earlier on as a shepherd, cursing the fates when Orfeo left to recover his bride.
Francesca Aspromonte had a slightly hard sound but a captivating dramatic presence as the Messenger forced to deliver the hateful news of Euridice’s death, giving an anguished and urgent rendition of “Ma io, che in questa lingua.” Francesca Boncompagni displayed a liquid crystal tone, singing with simplicity and nobility as Proserpina. Mezzo Esther Brazil stood out for her honeyed tone and quick, pleasing vibrato as the principal Nymph.
As with many semi-staged opera performances, the theatrical elements (no director was credited in the program) had hits and misses. A clear space between the two halves of the orchestra allowed the singers a place to play rudimentary scenes, and allowed for dancing to accompany the sprightly beats of the wedding choruses. Too often, though, awkward wandering and wavy gestures distracted more than they illuminated.
It did seem a bit strange to include Friday’s performance in Carnegie’s “International Festival of Orchestras II” series. One usually expects from this series a lineup closer to next year’s, advertised in a flier inserted in Friday’s playbill: the Berlin Philharmonic, the Russian National Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic, and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. The inclusion of a group like the English Baroque Soloists is a bold move, but the subscribers were apparently unfazed: the audience roared its approval after the final chord, leaping up almost before Gardiner had given the cutoff.