Gardiner and colleagues open Monteverdi cycle with an enthralling “L’Orfeo”

Thu Oct 19, 2017 at 1:15 pm
Krystian Adam in the title role of Monterdi's "L'Orfeo" with bass Gianluca Burlatto and harpist Gwyneth Wentink Wednesday night at Lincoln Center. Photo: Kevin Yatarola

Krystian Adam in the title role of Monteverdi’s “L’Orfeo” with bass Gianluca Burlatto and harpist Gwyneth Wentink Wednesday night at Lincoln Center. Photo: Kevin Yatarola

The first opera, which was not preserved, was probably written in the late 16th century by Jacobo Peri. Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo dates from 1607, early enough to enjoy practical status as the first opera. And because it is a great work, still one of the greatest in the art form, it is just and fitting to call it the first.

Opening Wednesday night, as part of Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival, conductor John Eliot Gardiner, the English Baroque Soloists, the Monteverdi Choir, and a group of wonderful singers are honoring the composer with “Monteverdi: The Birth of Opera.” This is a series of semi-staged performances of Monteverdi’s surviving operas: Orfeo, The Return of Ulysses, and The Coronation of Poppea (presented with English titles but sung in Italian). Based on the first performance, one is advised to grab tickets immediately.

Gardiner’s experience with this music goes back 50 years, as he mentioned in a brief program note, and these same groups (though with different musicians and singers) released a recording on Archiv 30 years ago that remains one of the finest available. One entered Alice Tully Hall with confidence that the performance would go well.

The music-making quickly demolished all expectations. Compared to the recording, many of the tempos Wednesday night were more relaxed, though nothing ever felt slow. The pace meant that the performance lingered on the music and the singers had room to both articulate the settings and express emotion and meaning.

The emphasis in the accompaniment was on a warm, mellifluous legato in the violins, and the same clarity of articulation in the continuo. The musicians played with great verve and sublime tenderness; the contrast between the fast and slow playing of the main Ritornello produced an emotional ache.

On top of this, the cast was superb in every part, and the Monteverdi Choir sang with great strength, color, and body of sound. Lusty, as clichéd as it may be, is the mot juste.

Orfeo, the first great operatic role, was sung by tenor Krystian Adam. His voice has an excellent balance for the part—just sweet, full and light enough. He was boyish and firm, masculine and tender.

Euridice and La Música were sung by soprano Hana Blazikova. She has one of the most exquisite voices in early music, and singing dramatic roles brought out a warm glow and a relaxed, intimate communication. She also has an affecting stage presence, gliding along, and as La Music in the Prologue she had the embracing presence of a storyteller.

Bass Gianluca Buratto sang the other important dual role, that of Charon and Plutone. His full, rounded sound was a pleasure to hear, and his modulation produced two very different characters; his Charon was rough in manner, angry, while Plutone was regal and commanding, while also revealing his helplessness before Proserpina (soprano Francesco Boncompagni).

Boncompagni was just as expressive and affecting as the principals in her turn, “Signor, Quell’ infelice.” This was the same for the other featured parts, with musically beautiful and dramatically gripping singing from mezzo Lea Desandre as Messaggera and countertenor Kangmin Justin Kim as Speranza. His “Ecco l’altar palude,” sung from a stage-right box, was show-stopping and explosive.

The dramatic and musical apex of the opera is “Possente Spirto” in Act III, when Orfeo beguiles Charon with song in order to cross the Styx and find Euridice. This is one of the most beautiful and complex scenes in all of the operatic literature, because dramatic artifice on stage is paralleled by the natural drama in the seats—the audience hanging on every note, swathed in every Ritornello, enthralled by the music’s unfolding.

Adam sang the ornamented line (the music allows the tenor to improvise if desired) with a focus on phrasing and dynamics, carefully and smoothly sculpting the rise, fall, and dissipation of each passage. It was a combination of music and poetic declamation, quiet and still and mesmerizing and intensely dramatic. The responses from the orchestra were equally as expressive, and the final one from harpist Gwyneth Wentink, with Charon bowed under the power of the music, was extraordinarily delicate, refined, and moving.

The performance was a perfect realization of Monteverdi’s natural style, which is full of emotional fervor and a sense of communication that comes right from the gut. All the singing was characterful and intimate. The smaller roles were cast with voices each distinguished from the others. The Pastore were a prime example, with tenors Francisco Fernández-Rueda, Gareth Treseder, John Taylor Ward, and Michal Czerniawski all with very different vocal qualities.

The particular strength of human feeling in Orfeo makes it ever timely. The context of the opera world, dominated by works from romantic era, and their modern recreations, heightens the earthy urgency in Monteverdi.

The key is rhythm—sharp rhythms and an audible beat gradually dissipated during the 19th century, and it is Monteverdi’s beat that drives home his marvelously clear settings. In fast music, his syncopations have a bouncy energy, and in slow music the harmonic rhythms slide into every cadence like the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle.

Monteverdi specified the instrumentation at the beginning of the score, but as the measures go along he indicated additional instruments. Gardiner’s orchestra was fairly close to the original directions—the conductor had four guitarists instead of two, and had them doubling on theorbo, a common choice, and one organ instead of the original three. There were three cornets and five sackbuts, and Buratto added percussive gusto with a frame drum during the overture and finale. At times in the Ritornellos, the first-stand violinist improvised ornamentation within the orchestral textures, which added musical excitement.

One was impressed with the balance between colors and beauty of sound, from all the singers and instrumentalists. Early music has come a long way since Monteverdi first impressed Gardiner, and the English Baroque Soloists combined for a fullness that would rival any chamber orchestra, while coating the grain of their instruments with a golden glow, one of the many facets in this rare and remarkable performance.

The White Light Festival presents The Return of Ulysses 7 p.m. Thursday, and The Coronation of Poppea, 7 p.m. Friday.

Note: Reviews of all three Monteverdi operas performed on this tour can be found on Chicago Classical Review.


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