Garrido’s Stunning Monteverdi Operas & Vespers Reissued


MONTEVERDI: L’Orfeo / Victor Torres, baritone (Orfeo); Adriana Fernandez, soprano (Euridice); Gloria Banditelli, soprano (Sylvia/Messenger); Maria Kristina Kiehr, mezzo-soprano (Speranza/La Musica); Antonio Abete, bass (Caronte); Furio Zanasi, tenor (Pluto/4th Shepherd); Roberta Invernizzi, soprano (Prosperina/Ninfa); Maurizio Rossano, tenor (Apollo); Gerd Türk, countertenor (Shepherd 1); Fabian Schofrin, countertenor (Shepherd 2); Giovanni Caccamo, baritone (Shepherd 3/Spirit 1); Salvatore Suttera, baritone (Spirit 2); Coro Antonio il Verso; Ensemble Elyma; Gabriel Garrido, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube

MONTEVERDI: Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria / Gloria Banditelli, soprano (Penelope); Furio Zanasi, baritone (Ulisse); Maria Cristina Kiehr, mezzo-soprano (Minerva/Fortuna); Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, bass (Telemaco); Fabian Schofrin, countertenor (Pisandro/Umana Fragilità); Marcello Vargetto, baritone (Antino/Tempo); Adriana Fernandez, soprano (Giunone/Amore); Guillemette Laurens, soprano (Melanto); Gian Paolo Fagotto, countertenor (Iro); Giovanni Caccamo, tenor (Giove); Pablo Pollitzer, countertenor (Anfinomo); Mario Cecchetti, tenor (Eurimaco); Roberto Abbondanza, tenor (Eumete); Alicia Borges, mezzo-soprano (Ericlea); Antonio Abete, bass (Nettuno); Salvatore Sutera, tenor (A Physician); Coro Antonio il Verso; Ensemble Euphonia; Gabriel Garrido, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube

MONTEVERDI: L’Incoronazione di Poppea / Guillemette Laurens, soprano (Poppea); Flavio Oliver, countertenor (Nerone); Fabian Schofrin, countertenor (Ottone); Emanuela Galli, soprano (Drusilla/La Virtú); Gloria Banditelli, soprano (Ottavia); Ivan Garcia, bass (Seneca); Adriana Fernandez, soprano (Damigella/Amore/Coro di Amori); Martin Oro, countertenor (Arnalta); Alicia Borges, mezzo-soprano (Nutrice/Pallade); Mario Cecchetti, tenor (Lucano/Soldier 1/Tribune 1); Elena Cecchi Fedi, soprano (Valletto/Coro di Amori); Phlippe Jaroussky, countertenor (Mercurio/Friend of Seneca/Coro di Amori); Beatriz Lanza, soprano (Fortuna/Venere); Furio Zanasi, tenor (Liberto/Consolo 1/Soldier 2); Marcello Vargetto, bass (Littore/Consolo 2/Friend of Seneca); Giovanni Caccamo, tenor (Friend of Seneca/Tribune 2); Coro Antonio il Verso; Ensemble Elyma; Gabriel Garrido, conductor / final duet available for free streaming on YouTube

MONTEVERDI: Vespro della Beata Vergine / Emanuela Galli, Adriana Fernandez, sopranos; Martin Oro, Fabian Shofrin, countertenors; Mario Cecchetti, Rodrigo del Pozo, Pablo Pollitzer, Francesco Garrigoso, tenors; Furio Zanasi, baritone; Daniele Carnovich, Ivan Garcia, basses; Coro Antonio il Verso; Coro Madrigalia; Ensemble Elyma; Gabriel Garrido, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube

MONTEVERDI: Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda / Alicia Borges, mezzo-soprano (Armida); Adriana Fernandez, soprano (Sinfonia); Marinella Pennicchi, soprano (Clorinda/Erminia); Giovanni Caccamo, tenor (Tancredi); Daniele Carnovich, bass (King Aladin); Mario Cecchetti, tenor (Olindo); Furio Zanasi, baritone (Testo); Martin Oro, countertenor; Ensemble Elyma; Gabriel Garrido, conductor / BERNARDI: Sinfonia Prima à 6. NEGRI: Armida in stile recitativo. MONTEVERDI: Sinfonia. Vattene pur, crudele. La tra’l sangue. Poi eh ‘ella in se torno. Piagn’e sospiro. EREDI: L’Armida del Tasso. D’INDIA: La tra ‘l sanguee le morti. Ma che? Squallido e oscura. MAZZOCCHI: Chiudesti i lumi Armida. MARINI: Canzon VIII. Le Lagrime d’Erminia. La Bella Erminia. FIAMENGO: Dialogo di Sofronia e Olindo. GRILLO: Sonata Primo à 7. CIFRA: Era la notte / Ensemble Elyma; Gabriel Garrido, conductor / Accent ACC24328 (12 CDs)

From the liner notes by Stefano Russomanno:

At the end of the 1990s, the recordings of Gabriel Garrido represented an important landmark in the interpretation of Monteverdi operas. What attracted one’s attention in his versions were the brilliance and the hedonism of the actual recording itself. Garrido involved not only the typical instruments which can play contrapuntally (keyboard, organ, archlute, harp, etc) but those with melodic capabilities as well. The resulting sound was opulent but never ornamental; and from it the dramatic rhythm flowed in a series of subtle ways.

Reinforcing the instrumental complement was never done to the detriment of vocal concerns, which continued to have a leading role. It was precisely with the voices where Garrido set himself apart from his predecessors. By deciding to surround himself with Latin voices (Italian, French, Spanish, Argentinian…) he endowed his Monteverdi with warm, rounded and sensual vocal colours. Many of the individual vocal performances continue to represent interpretative touchstones: the Messaggera and Penelope of Gloria Banditelli, the Proserpina of Roberta Invernizzi, the Telemaco of Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, the Caronte of Antonio Abete, the Ulisse of Furio Zanasi and the Melanto of Guillemette Laurens stand out in particular.

Seldom has the publicity for a set of recordings been so accurate as the one above. Over the years I’ve found that early American and later Italian conductors of early music actually had a lot more in common than, say, Americans and British musicians (although several of the latter have come over here and made careers, such as Monica Huggett) or American and German, although the shamefully underrated conductor Reinhard Göbel fits into the American-Italian mold. Many of the latter-day Italian conductors, ensembles and singers have much the same kind of unfussy, emotionally direct appeal as the old New York Pro Musica or Alan Curtis’ Oakland, California-based ensembles of the mid-1960s. This was before Curtis became internationally known, but those of us who so greatly admired his landmark recording of L’Incoronazione di Poppea with Carole Bogard (Poppea), Charles Bressler (Nero), and Herbert Beattie (Seneca) knew what a landmark it was. Save for the authentic manner of singing those “spotted flute” trills, which was unknown at the time, this old Cambridge recording could stand up with the best of latter-day performances.

And so, when you begin listening to Garrido’s Monteverdi with his breathtaking L’Orfeo, it is the sheer exhilaration of the performance as well as the extraordinary instrumental clarity and Latin liveliness of the whole enterprise that takes one’s breath away. I found it ironic, almost comical, to read a review of this set when it was first issued in 1996 in the Gramophone, a music magazine for which the gold standard for all classical music is always British musicians. The reviewer was simply bowled over by the performance—you can tell it in the subtext of what he is saying—yet he absolutely had to go out of his way to criticize the use of a baritone as Orfeo because he prefers tenors, specifically (of course!) British tenor Nigel Rogers. Now, I owned that first Rogers recording of L’Orfeo for about a decade and liked his performance of it very much, but there is no question in my mind that baritone Victor Torres does an equally superb job with the role, and moreover than Garrido’s orchestra and chorus simply run rings around what Rogers presented us. But the Gramophone critic simply wouldn’t admit this, so in the end round he came to recommend the Rogers recording over this one despite its overly-careful, academic performance style.

One of the detriments I had in reviewing these recordings is that not all of them were available to me. This was not an album that Naxos could provide me as downloads, but luckily some enterprising souls were kind enough to upload Garrido’s L’Orfeo, Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria and the Vespers on YouTube, which is where I got them. The complete L’Incoronazione di Poppea was not available online, but a few excerpts were. Although I really liked Garrido’s clarity and rhythmic lift, I was far from convinced by his use of a countertenor Nero. Monteverdi clearly specified a mezzo-soprano. He didn’t even have countertenors to sing opera in his day, and no matter how you slice it, hearing a brute like Nero being sung by someone who sounds like a sissy-britches isn’t my idea of the thing at all. Harnoncourt used light-voiced Mozart tenor Eric Tappy for his Nero, but in the case of this opera I’m still partial to the live performance conducted by John Eliot Gardiner on DG Archiv because the cast is just so good from top to bottom.

Now, I can take countertenors in roles where Monteverdi used falsetto singers—in his day, not exactly like the countertenors we have now—such as the shepherds in L’Orfeo or Arnalta in Poppea, so that didn’t bother me very much. And I really do love the way his recordings display such exceptional instrumental clarity and rhythmic drive and lift. These compensate for a lot, and I especially appreciated the fact that in addition to having wonderful voices, all of his singers had exceptionally clear diction and a good emotional identification with the characters they were singing. To me, that means a great deal, and as soprano Carole Bogard used to say, there’s really no reason to sing early music so “pinny neat” that you’re afraid the music might break if you give it some emotion. Yes, you should have pure-toned voices for this music, but this does not preclude singing with feeling.

More to the point, there is no authentic precedent for having your orchestra and chorus perform in an over-delicate manner. I doubt that most lovers of Monteverdi have ever heard the landmark 1951 performance of L’Orfeo directed by Paul Hindemith, also with a largely Latin cast and a dedicated group of young musicians eager to play in an authentic style (Nikolaus Harnoncourt was one of the cellists). It had a feeling about it similar to this, except of course that this is in digital stereo and the polish and sheen of the massed vocal and instrumental forces are considerably better than what Hindemith had to work with…but the results are similar. Both the solo singers and the orchestral players give their all here, and the last act is about as emotional an experience as you’re likely to have in early Baroque opera.

Garrido’s performance of Il Ritorno d’Ulisse uses reduced forces, but not really as reduced as most recorded versions on CD and/or DVD. The problem with the two later Monteverdi operas is that they were not presented at the Court of Mantua, funded by wealthy patrons so that he could hire as many musicians and singers as he wanted. Rather, they were among the first publicly staged operas at local theaters, meaning that anyone could buy a ticket and come see it. This was, by itself, not a bad thing, but in those days (the 1640s) theater managers were not used to staging operas, and thus were unprepared for the cost overruns. The result of this was that Monteverdi was told he could only use a very small orchestra, perhaps 15-20 musicians, and likewise only small choruses of maybe 8-10 singers. This is the reason why L’Orfeo’s orchestral and choral writing are so much more colorful than the later operas. Garrido has taken the unusual, and I say correct, path of bolstering Monteverdi’s sparse orchestration (something that even John Eliot Gardiner did for Poppea) to give it a bit more fullness of sound. He also uses another composer’s music for the orchestral prelude—specifically, Giovanni Grillo’s Sonata Secondo à 7—which I personally found more questionable. But once the performance gets rolling, there is no denying its beauty of sound (although he uses a countertenor for Human Frailty the opening sequence, and said countertenor is one of the most annoying and hooty-sounding representative of its species), clarity and forward momentum. I’ve never quite figured out why early Baroque composers thought these “moralistic” prologues featuring people dressed up as “virtues” or “human frailty” or whatever. And they seem to go on forever, don’t they?

But of course, Ulisse is the least complete and most flawed of Monteverdi’s surviving operas anyway. The music exists in only one manuscript, some of it sloppily written and not all in Monteverdi’s own hand. It lacks details, is incomplete in places and has many tiny errors: obviously a working copy made for a stage performance and not a real “manuscript” in the true sense. But it’s better than nothing, and Garrido—like Alan Curtis and Martin Pearlman before him—has fashioned his own working edition. Except for the predictably draggy Prologue, I’d say it works very well indeed. Both his lively pace and the wonderfully involved singing, one’s interest is held much better than you might expect for a long performance of an early opera without the benefit of visuals. His 23-voice chorus is probably double the size Monteverdi himself had to work with, and it’s a good chorus that sounds like people singing, not a whiny straight-toned choir that sounds like a MIDI. Indeed, considering the extreme length of the work and its poisonously static quality (watch a stage performance sometime; you’ll be amazed at how much of nothing actually goes on in terms of movement), Garrido manages to really make it move once we get to the better part of the libretto. The Italianate drive of the performance almost becomes palpable at times, and by wedding the orchestral and vocal lines as much as he does, Garrido presents us with a unified artistic concept. Furio Zanasi is really emotionally wrapped up as Ulisse..just listen to his long monologue, it’s so full of passion and fire! Garrido also uses certain techniques that most HIP performers reject, such as dynamics changes and contrasts. These help a lot, too.

Yet it is with the 1610 Vespers that Garrido made the sharpest break with HIP, and everyone else’s, tradition, because he absolutely refused to conduct the music at a snail’s pace, getting it done in less than two hours (as did Gardiner). Some online commentators have taken him to the woodshed over this, complaining that his tempos are “awful” and that he showed no respect for such deeply religious music, but who said that religious music has to be conducted at a funereal pace? Think of Bach’s Mass in b minor: most of that is not draggy music, at least not unless the conductor chooses to make it so. Moreover, Garrido’s tempi were consistent not only with his approach to the operas but also, I might add, with the way most conductors old and new conduct Monteverdi’s madrigals, on which the Vespers are based in form. The chorus is again magnificent, not only tonally but in terms of enthusiasm, and the orchestra plays with an almost white heat. I am now 66 years old, have been listening to recordings of the Vespers on and off for close to 40 years, and have NEVER heard such a lively, enthusiastic performance. Since I did not have the studio recording from 1999 to work with, I downloaded and listened to the “live” 2000 concert version, but YouTube did not identify the soloists so I’m not altogether positive if they’re the same as on the studio recording. But no matter. Plain and simple, Garrido’s Vespers will carry you away with their wonderful sweep and passion.

Sadly, I had no access to his recordings of Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda or the madrigals based on the “Gerusalemme Liberata” (most of them by composers other than Monteverdi) except for Francesco Eredi’s L’Armida del Tasso, so I cannot make any comment on them, but I was fortunate enough to hear his performances of the Selva Morale e Spirituale and Messa à Quattro Voci da Cappella, and they, too, are very detailed and exciting performances.

There is no doubt in my mind that Garrido’s Monteverdi is a landmark of recording history, on a par with Toscanini’s Beethoven Symphonies and Missa Solemnis, Harnoncourt’s Schubert Symphonies and Robert Kajanus’ Sibelius, a very special and unique musical journey unlike any other in its specific field. I cannot recommend this set highly enough; even the somewhat flawed Poppea has an aura and a feeling all its own. At the moment you can acquire the whole set on Presto Classical for $46.75, which breaks down to $3.89 per CD (a steal!), but even at the regular price of $54.25 it’s an excellent bargain.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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