MONTEVERDI: L’Orfeo / Johan Linderoth, ten (Orfeo); Kristina Hellgren, sop (La Musica/Prosperina/Choir); Christine Nonbo Andersen, sop (Ninfa 1/Euridice/Choir); Maria Forsström, mezzo (Messenger/Choir); Anna Zander, mezzo (Pastore 1/Speaker/Choir); Adam Riis, ten (Pastore 2/Apollo/Echo/Choir); Daniel Åberg, bar (Pastore 3/Infernal Spirit 2/Choir); Steffen Bruun, bass (Caronte); Karl Peter Eriksson, bar (Pastore 4/Pluto/Choir); Ann-Margret Nyberg, sop (Ninfa 2/Choir); Rasmus Gravers Nielsen, ten (Infernal Spirit 1/Choir); Staffan Alveteg, bs (Infernal Spirit 3/Choir); Hedvig von Schantz, sop (Choir); Staffan Solén, ten (Choir); Petter Östberg, ten (Choir); Höör Barock; Ensemble Altapunta; Fredrik Malmberg, dir/org / Bis SACD-2519
Monteverdi;s L’Orfeo is sometimes referred to as the first opera, but it’s just not so. The first opera, which predated L’Orfeo by a few years, was Jacopo Peri’s Dafne, whether you care for it or not; but Dafne is today considered pretty much a museum piece while L’Orfeo continues to be performed and recorded by many, particularly since the early 1980s.
This particular performance is the sort of thing that would have been considered extremely difficult to mount back in the early-to-mid 1980s, when John Eliot Gardiner made his first recording of the opera using “name” singers, albeit ones suited to Handel and Mozart, in the solo roles: an ensemble of 15 singers who can, and do, sing the solo roles demanded in this opera while still being able to fall back and become the chorus. They call themselves Ensemble Lundabarock, and although I did not refer to them as such in the above header they are indeed comprised of all the singers named.
Famed Italian Monteverdi expert Gabriel Gorrido, whose recordings of this composer’s works made between 1996 and 2000 are similar to these, were widely and unanimously hailed upon their release for this very thing. I have his set of recordings—all but the L’Incoronazione di Poppea, for which I prefer Claudio Cavina’s recording on the Glossa label (the singers are better)—and until now I preferred Gorrido’s L’Orfeo above all others because of its wonderful ensemble casting. But, I must admit, I like Malmberg’s conducting almost as much as Gorrido’s and some of his singers more. Gorrido had some steady but tonally unremarkable singers in several roles such as the Shepherd and the Nymphs, not to mention Orfeo and Euridice, but when listening to this new recording I didn’t hear a single soloist whose voice was the slightest bit unpleasant. Malmberg has done himself proud in his selection of singers, and although few of them have that certain “Italian exuberance” that I like to hear in a performance of this opera, the principal leads do, giving a reading that is both musically satisfying and interpretively interesting.
In a “chamber opera” like this, sonics generally don’t matter as much as you might think, but here, too Bis’ super audio CD sound adds an extra dimension to the performance, particularly in those moments when the little orchestra is playing along with the chorus. And the musicians certainly play with enthusiasm; at times they reminded me of the old New York Pro Musica of sainted memory, still the most enjoyable early music band that ever existed.
Of course, I have no way of knowing if these ensembles represent a new standard in historically informed performance practice; I certainly have never traveled outside of the U.S. and have to rely on whatever broadcasts, recordings and videotaped performances I can access, but if it is a new standard it is clearly moving in the right direction. None of the orchestral musicians play with a wan, sickly timbre; on the contrary, each instrument sounds alive and natural to my ears, and they have an excellent grasp of both legato phrasing and subtle changes in dynamics and rhythmic accents which enliven their playing. If I have any caveat at all about this performance, it is that it sounds to me, at times, a little over-rehearsed, as of Malmberg was so concerned about getting exactly the right effects that he sacrificed some spontaneity, particularly in the singing. The orchestra, as I noted, sounds consistently enthusiastic, and that helps to propel the music with exactly the right feeling of enthusiasm when they are playing.
Moreover, there are moments when the singers sound enthusiastic indeed, particularly Orfeo’s “Ecco pur ch’a voi ritorno” which Johan Linderoth sings with excellent interpretation as well as a beautiful tone. But of course I am nitpicking a bit here, considering how many recordings there are of this opera. Almost no performance of L’Orfeo I’ve heard has the raw energy of the one that Paul Hindemith, of all people, recorded way back in 1951 (with a very appropriately Italian-sounding lead tenor), but he, too had to suffer some defective voices in subsidiary but important roles which diminished his achievement somewhat. By and large, I’d say that it’s primarily the female singers who tend to perform a bit more cautiously than they needed to (although mezzo Maria Forsström is wonderful as the Messenger). A bit more oomph would have been appreciated, but none of them are so bland as to harm the performance.
Indeed, as the performance continued I became more and more wrapped up in it. It was just so wonderful to hear an ensemble cast as consistently good as this, backed by instrumentalists who don’t hold back emotionally. I think there is a tendency for modern-day audiences, critics, and especially musicologists to forget that this was an ITALIAN OPERA, and I seriously doubt that even Italian court singers of 1607 sang with reticent emotion. (Hell, they probably had audience members who said afterwards, “Hey, where was the high notes? I wanna hear a high C or two!”)
And when these 15 singers come together to sing as a chorus, well, they are almost beyond wonderful, producing such a rich sound that you’d swear this was a 30-piece choir. I’ll put it to you this way: this performance is so good that, were I still able to walk and get around, I’d actually pay to go hear it in person. I say “hear it” rather than “see it” because, for all its musical excellence, L’Orfeo was not yet what you’d call a visual treat. Monteverdi was to slowly but surely improve on this in his later operas the Return of Ulysses to his Homeland and the Coronation of Poppea, but they were in the future. L’Orfeo is a rather static work, no matter how many Regietheater morons try to ruin it (and by golly, they’ve sure tried, haven’t they?).
I did, however, discover one singer with a defective voice, and that was bass Steffen Bruun as Caronte. He has a fine tone and the appropriate low range, but also a wobble in the voice. Fortunately, he doesn’t sing all that much and, when he enters the second time, his voice sounds firmer.
All in all, however, I think that this recording of L’Orfeo goes straight to the top of the list of preferred versions of this opera. Both Monteverdi and his followers were to develop the concept of a sung line into something more melodic and less like secco recitative as the decades went on, but there is still a great deal to admire in this score and Malmberg and his forces bring that out with an excellent style and great spirit.
—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley
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