03 June 2013

CD REVIEW: Claudio Monteverdi—L’ORFEO (C. Daniels, F. Newton, E. Van Evera, C. Wilkinson, C. Purves; Avie Records AV2278

Claudio Monteverdi: L'ORFEO (Avie Records AV2278)

CLAUDIO MONTEVERDI (1567 – 1643): L’Orfeo, Favola in musica—C. Daniels (Orfeo), F. Newton (Euridice), E. Van Evera (Messaggiera, Prosperina), C. Wilkinson (Speranza), D. Hurley (La Musica), C. Streetman (Caronte), C. Purves (Plutone), G. Pelc (Apollo); Taverner Consort and Players; Andrew Parrott [Recorded in the Church of St Michael and All Angels, Summertown, Oxford, England, 23 – 28 July 2012; Avie Records AV2278]

Forty years ago, when the first fruits of the historically-informed performance movement were sweeping across Europe with a force that in musical terms rivaled the impact of the revolutions of 1848, a young Englishman in his mid-thirties named Andrew Parrott founded a choral ensemble and period-instrument band that, honoring one of the most significant composers in the history of British music, he named the Taverner Consort and Players.  It is perhaps ironic to note that Britain, where Victorian traditions of musical performances on an immense scale obliterated so much of the authentic performance heritage of Early Music and Baroque repertory (though, to be fair, it must be said that many performances in the ‘grand tradition’ of conductors such as Sir Henry Wood and Sir Malcolm Sargent were—and, thanks to remastered recordings, continue to be—tremendously enjoyable in their own right), has been the epicenter of the seismic shaking-up of historically-appropriate performance practices.  Four centuries ago, Mantua was similarly central to the eruption of a new musical volcano, the lava from which spread over the whole world and continues to boil magnificently today.  A composer from Cremona called Claudio Monteverdi created for the private enjoyment of the court of his employer, Vincenzo Gonzaga, a favola in musica—a musical fable—on the subject of the quintessential musician of lore, Orpheus.  It was neither the first such work nor even the first to propose Orpheus as its hero, but Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo is the earliest creature in that fascinating species Opera that seized attention and fired imaginations far beyond its intended audience of Carnivale-celebrating noblemen.  It is hardly surprising that, celebrating four decades of redefining standards of excellence in historically-informed performances of Early Music, the Taverner Consort and Players should set their sights on L’Orfeo, not only as an exercise in homage to their achievements in 17th-Century vocal music but also as a logical successor to their groundbreaking recording of Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespro della beata Vergine.  Like so many of the recordings by the Taverner Consort and Players, this L’Orfeo blows away cobwebs of conventionality that have gathered even on this most ubiquitous of Early operas.  Most rewardingly, this recording finds the Taverner Consort and Players still at the top of their game.

With instrumentalists of the calibre of Kirsty Whatley, Steven Devine, Jakob Lindberg, Hannah Tibell, and Susan Addison in their midst, the histrionic authority and virtuosity of the Taverner Players are self-evident, and indeed there are too many individual moments of particular brilliance to list.  Throughout the performance, the alertness and sense of crackling drama among all participants make this studio recording gratifyingly redolent of the theatre.  Uniformly wonderful in supporting rôles are members of the Taverner Consort: soprano Anna Dennis; tenors Rodrigo del Pozo, Gareth Morrell (himself an accomplished Orfeo on a recording by Apollo’s Fire), and Simon Wall; baritone Richard Latham; bass-baritone James Arthur; and bass Robert Macdonald.  These artists offer performances of a quality that exceeds that of the singing of the principal rôles in many performances of L’Orfeo, in fact, their unwavering involvement in the drama creating a foundation upon which an uncommonly persuasive performance is built.  Maestro Parrott has displayed an instinctive comprehension since his founding of the Taverner Consort and Players of the rôle of a conductor in Early Music: neither as simple as serving as a ‘traffic cop’ who keeps all performers moving in the right directions nor as self-righteously complex as many ‘experts’ on historically-informed performance practices might suggest, the conductor of a score like Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo is above all the master of balance.  To Maestro Parrott falls the task of ensuring that instrumentalists and singers achieve and maintain balances that respect the composer’s intention of making music the equal rather than the servant of text.  It might seem critical to suggest that, when listening to any of his recordings, it would be difficult to discern any particular aspects of the performances that unquestionably identify the conductor as Maestro Parrott, but that is one of the most appreciable qualities of his conducting: leaving quirks and idiosyncrasies to others, Maestro Parrott focuses on the music at hand, trusting the abilities of his performers.  He has never done so more justifiably or more pleasurably than in this recording of L’Orfeo.

Recording vocal music in the acoustical space of a church can be very challenging, with concerns about echoes cropping up at one end of the spectrum and worries about some degree of claustrophobia in the recorded sound at the other.  When managed with skill and imagination, however, the results of recording in a church setting can be revelatory.  The DECCA recording of the soundtrack for Claude d’Anna’s 1987 film of Verdi’s Macbeth, so troublesome to the engineers, ultimately offered an intriguing performance that audibly inhabited the dank corridors of Cawdor Castle, for example.  A similar serendipity occurs in this recording of L’Orfeo, the close balance achieved by Avie’s engineer—Adrian Hunter—suggesting both the specific mythological environs in which the drama plays out and the intimate setting of Mantua’s Palazzo Ducale, where the opera was first performed.  Echo effects are very important in L’Orfeo, and Avie’s acoustics enable all of Monteverdi’s creative uses of these and other effects to enjoy full exposure.  A performance of a work that relies upon the distinctive timbre of an instrument like the regal demands a particular sonic ambiance, and the very important rhythms of Monteverdi’s music—so expertly shaped by Maestro Parrott and executed by the Taverner Consort and Players—require great clarity of sound.  Ambiance and clarity are ideally balanced in this recording, which further confirms Avie’s dedication to this project.

It is fitting that an opera about the most important musician in mythology should begin with a Prologue delivered by an allegorical representation of la Musica, music itself.  La Musica was written for a castrato voice that almost certainly fell into the range that would now be designated as soprano: indeed, all of the female rôles in L’Orfeo were sung in the first performance by male singers.  In the history of recording L’Orfeo, la Musica has usually been sung by female sopranos or boy trebles.  This performance achieves an exciting and atypically effective example of historically-informed practice at its best with the casting of David Hurley as la Musica.  The high voice in the celebrated King’s Singers ensemble, Mr. Hurley brings the purity of a treble and the power of an adult singer to his performance of the Prologue, ‘Dal mio Parnasso amato a voi ne vegno.’  Mr. Hurley’s musicality is irreproachable, and his elegance in negotiating the thorny tessitura is glorious.  The ethereal timbre of Mr. Hurley’s voice makes his Musica thoroughly credible as a figure descended from Parnassus.  Offering an artist of Mr. Hurley’s accomplishments as la Musica, whose contributions to L’Orfeo are confined to six minutes, is an instance of what might be termed ‘festival’ casting: it is apparent from Mr. Hurley’s first notes that this recording is a celebration of the Taverner Consort and Players and of Monteverdi.

Soprano Faye Newton brings passion and an evocative fragility to Euridice, interacting poignantly with her Orfeo and making much of her character’s pathos despite the musical brevity of her rôle.  Following the example of likely casting in Monteverdi’s time, soprano Emily Van Evera does double duty as the Messaggiera and Prosperina.  The Messaggiera’s rôle is secondary in importance only to Orfeo: propelling the drama with her crucial (if fleeting) appearance in Act Two, she is virtually a Classical Oracle.  Prosperina’s part is smaller still, but Ms. Van Evera unmistakably differentiates her singing of Prosperina from her performance of the Messaggiera.  Both parts are sung with grace and the knell of tragedy in the voice.

Speranza (Hope) is given one of the most inspired passages in Monteverdi’s score, ‘Ecco l’atra palude,’ the centerpiece of the beautiful scene in which Speranza accompanies Orfeo into the Underworld, where he hopes to reclaim Euridice from death.  Speranza can lead Orfeo no farther than to the banks of the Styx, where she leaves him to reflect on his sense of purpose.  Sung in this performance by the lovely Clare Wilkinson, Speranza’s pronouncements are more haunting and more heartening than ever.  Ms. Wilkinson’s beautiful mezzo-soprano voice is on marvelous form, and the immediacy of her delivery of Speranza’s lines is gripping.

It is to Caronte, the menacing boatman of the Styx, that Speranza delivers Orfeo, and in this performance Caronte is portrayed by American bass Curtis Streetman, whose strong lower register heightens the mystery of the ferryman.  Accompanied by the strident tones of the regal, Mr. Streetman’s performance gives Caronte’s lines a weight of meaning that seems more weary than threatening.  Many performances assign Plutone, the god of the underworld, to the same artist who sings Caronte, but this recording scores a triumph by casting the fantastic British bass Christopher Purves as Plutone.  A singer whose artistic horizon seems unlimited, Mr. Purves’s discography has recently expanded to include an acclaimed recording of Händel arias and an extraordinarily nuanced account of the Protector in George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, a part that he originated.  In the concise stretch of music allotted to him, Mr. Purves manages to create a rounded character, powerfully conveying Plutone’s nobility and ultimate circumspection.  Musically, this performance of Plutone gains immeasurably from the presence of an invaluable voice in its prime.

Young Israeli baritone Guy Pelc—recorded while performing his compulsory military service—sings Apollo, adapting his timbre and his phrasing masterfully to match those of Orfeo in the penultimate scene of the opera.  The lovely tones produced by Mr. Pelc create an exemplary aura of the god of light descending like the rays of the sun to earth.  In his succinct appearance, Apollo’s vocal demands are intimidating, but Mr. Pelc faces nothing that he does not conquer manfully.

Like Rodelinda, Norma, or Tosca, a performance of L’Orfeo without a savvy Orfeo at its core is destined for failure.  First performed by Francesco Rasi, a celebrated singer to whom contemporary accounts attribute remarkable capabilities for vocal and dramatic display, the rôle of Orfeo contains music of difficulty that has in the subsequent four centuries been equaled but never surpassed.  Musically, Orfeo is the starting block at which the race from the ambiguous comedic rôles of Neapolitan Baroque opera to the romantic tenor heroes of Verdi and Puccini was started, and ‘Possente Spirto’—Orfeo’s great aria of musical persuasion before Plutone and Prosperina—is the shot that spurred the runners off their marks.  Charles Daniels, a veteran of the British Early Music scene whose performances have garnered countless accolades, was an inspired choice for the title rôle in this recording.  There have been trends of casting singers with darker, heavier voices—including, across a number of years, such celebrated baritones as Gérard Souzay, Philippe Huttenlocher, Gino Quilico, Simon Keenlyside, and Stéphane Degout—as Orfeo, but Mr. Daniels’s performance reveals that the heady timbre of a light tenor voice is best-suited to Orfeo’s fearsomely demanding music.  There is an almost arrogant joy in Mr. Daniels’s singing about his love for Euridice, and the sting of his confidence being broken by the news of Euridice’s death is almost tangible, so sharp are Mr. Daniels’s musical accents.  The wildness of Orfeo’s despair is conveyed by Mr. Daniels with conviction that remains within the boundaries of good taste for what was a courtly entertainment for an assembly of very refined gentlemen.  Mr. Daniels’s singing of ‘Possente Spirto’ is as refulgent in its way as Jussi Björling’s singing of ‘Ah! lève-toi, soleil’ or Franco Corelli’s trumpeting of ‘Di quella pira.’  Mr. Daniels’s technique remains incandescent, his delivery of Monteverdi’s divisions accomplished without aspirates or breaks in the extended phrases.  Mr. Daniels shares with several of his colleagues in this performance an uncanny skill for executing the Early Baroque trillo, a further measure of the extent to which he commands Orfeo’s music.  Mr. Daniels’s voice is at its most beautiful in those moments in which Monteverdi allows him to relax into lyrical phrases, but Mr. Daniels’s aptness for the part is evident in every bar that he sings.  Global economics in the past decade have prevented a number of the early 21st Century’s finest singers from being recorded in their best rôles: special gratitude is owed to Avie for this preservation of the performance of one of the most complete singers of Orfeo of his generation.

In his remarks about this recording that are included in Avie’s liner notes, Maestro Parrott states that his goal in this performance was to approach L’Orfeo as a work ‘more poetic than theatrical, as a refined courtly creation and, not least, of an intimacy utterly foreign to later “grand” opera and to almost any large public arena.’  This might seem to be the only intuitive way of performing an opera of L’Orfeo’s dimensions, but few productions or recordings have achieved the goal of performing the opera in a manner that might seem familiar to Monteverdi with the stamp of absolute rightness exhibited by this recording.  There are in the crisp rhythms, the blaring timbres of period cornetts and bass trombones, and the jarring dins of Baroque percussion sounds that are arrestingly modern.  The legacy of the first forty years of the Taverner Consort and Players, guided by Andrew Parrott, is epitomized by this recording of L’Orfeo: rather than putting on some scholarly recreation of Monteverdi’s music, every singer, musician, and technician involved with this performance has contributed to a recording that not only offers tantalizing evidence of how the opera sounded when Monteverdi’s ears first heard it but also grants even the listener familiar with the opera’s extensive discography the opportunity to symbolically hear L’Orfeo as though for the first time.