Monteverdi: L'Orfeo / Parrott, Taverner Consort

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This brand-new recording of Orfeo lacks thrills and grand vocal displays, and the results are beautiful indeed. Purposely eschewing what opera turned into within a half-century of this, the purported first entirely extant opera, Andrew Parrott, with 40 years of experience and scholarship under his belt, has opted to present a “favola in musica” rather than the later notation, a “dramma per musica”. The distinction is one of size, scope, and focus.

The performances that were given of Orfeo at the court of Mantua were neither fully-staged nor opulent; there is mention of a “curtain” but the room itself was salon-sized and the purpose of the event was to appreciate the combination of poetry and music. There were no singing stars; the purpose of the show was not virtuosity. It was an experiment for the heightening of the text by music.

With that in mind, this exquisite, delicate reading is a glorious alternative to, say, the Philip Pickett, René Jacobs, or Nikolaus Harnoncourt performances (let alone the heartbreaking Emmanuel Haim reading on Virgin), which are interested in Orfeo as a piece of theater, designed to “impress” and possibly stun. Parrott’s show places equal emphasis on the music and text—the words are delivered flawlessly, with strength where needed, but utterly devoid of melodrama. The drama is in the sadness of both words and music. It’s almost like Mozart in that respect: his operas rarely need to be “interpreted”; if the singers and players follow the music and text scrupulously, an effect will be made. It may not engender shock and awe, but the tale will be told, without over-emphasizing or exaggeration.

And that is what we get here. The first CD begins with the sound of a few people chattering, and the Gonzaga fanfare is first heard from a distance. Then it comes a bit closer—in a different key (this is not explained), which is a bit jarring but certainly makes us pay attention. The first voice we hear—La Musica—is that of countertenor David Hurley, perhaps the purest male adult voice I’ve ever heard (including Phillip Jaroussky’s). It is light as a feather, and music itself.

Charles Daniels is a wonderful Orfeo—sweet and gentle—and he handles the amazingly difficult “Possente spirto” and “Orfeo son io” in the third act beautifully, with every note clear and focused, but without any grandstanding. His legato (this entire performance is all about the unstoppability of music as exhibited by superb legato playing and singing from everyone) is a thing of wonder. Caronte, in the person of Curtis Streetman, also singing smoothly (and with a sensational trillo on the word “canto”), brings out some forte, impassioned pleading from Daniels’ Orefo—all the more effective since all else has been so understated.

Emily van Evera’s Messaggiera is a problem—her voice is too bright and she is too matter-of-fact for someone delivering such terrible news—but her Prosperina is so lovely that Christopher Purves’ Plutone must give in to her request. Faye Newton’s Eurydice is particularly effective in her final farewell, with its weird-and-weirder chromatic lines. Some might argue that the Infernal Spirits are not menacing enough; I would direct their attention to the accompaniment of the three trombones and two bass trombones, which add enough darkness to hide the sun. The only other concession to this being a staged work is the gradual disappearance of Apollo (finely sung by Guy Melc) and Orfeo near the opera’s close, since there is in fact a stage direction in the score that states that they “ascend”.

There are 29 instrumentalists, 14 of whom are string players; several of the singers play double roles. The harmonies in the choruses are spotless, with the men’s voices impeccably matched; this is some of the smoothest singing I’ve ever heard. Pitch is A=440 (most other recordings use A=465) which adds to the ease of production and mellow, sad telling of this well-known tale. The sound is pristine.

This may not be an only choice for a version of Orfeo; it’s an alternative, possibly thoroughly accurate reading of the favola. But its poetic approach is an ideal companion to the more aggressive, later 17th and early 18th century “operatic” readings mentioned above, with Haim’s probably first.

– Robert Levine,

Product Description:

  • Release Date: April 01, 2013

  • Catalog Number: AV2278

  • UPC: 822252227826

  • Label: AVIE

  • Number of Discs: 2

  • Composer: Claudio Monteverdi

  • Conductor: Andrew Parrott

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Taverner Consort, Taverner Players

  • Performer: Charles Daniels, Curtis Streetman, David Hurley, Emily van Evera, Faye Newton, Guy Melc