Mantua Translated to South Kensington: A Memorable Orfeo at the Proms

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United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Prom 25. Monteverdi: Soloists, Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 4.8.2015 (CS)

Monteverdi: Orfeo CR BBC Chris Christodoulou
Krystian Adam as Orpheus in a performance of Monteverdi’s Orfeo at the BBC Proms on Tuesday 4 August, with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner..


Monteverdi: Orfeo



Orpheus – Krystian Adam
Eurydice/Hope – Mariana Flores
Music/Messenger – Francesca Aspromonte
Charon/Pluto – Gianluca Buratto
Persephone – Francesca Boncompagni
Apollo/Shepherd I – Andrew Tortise
Nymph – Esther Brazil
Shepherd II/Spirit II/Echo – Gareth Treseder
Spirit I – Nicholas Mulroy
Shepherd III – James Hall
Shepherd IV/Spirit III – David Shipley

Monteverdi’s Orfeo seems to crop up in all sorts of venues these days, venues often far removed from the exquisite ducal hall of the Gonzaga Palace in Mantua, where the work was first staged before a small group of members of the Accademia degl’Invaghiti in 1607.  In January this year, the ROH presented the work at the Roundhouse in Camden (review); now Orfeo has travelled to the Royal Albert Hall.  As he witnessed Orfeo performed for the first time in the Sala Nuova, which measured just 30 by 7 metres, Monteverdi surely could not have imagined that 400 years later his ‘opera’ Orfeo would be drawing an audience of over 5000 in such a cavernous arena.

Part of the draw for those packed in from pit to rafters was, of course, the opportunity to see and hear Sir John Eliot Gardiner lead a cast of renowned soloists, accompanied by the forces of the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, on the first of their visits to the Proms this year.  But, even Gardiner could not quite overcome all of the problems arising from the innate incompatibility of work and venue.  In the opening Toccata the rhetorical fanfares of the 3 cornetti and 5 sackbuts swelled warmly and ceremoniously, recreating the formalised musical flourish which accompanied the noble entrance of Vincenzo, Duke of Mantua on that fateful day (in the annals of music history at least) in February 1607, when the dignified elite processed to take their places before an hierarchically arranged audience.  Unfortunately, in the process, the blazing brass more or less obliterated the strings.  Wind generally fared better throughout: the inter-strophe commentaries of the two cornetti (one of the two players turned away from the audience to effect an echo) and harp in the opera’s great musical and spiritual core, ‘Possente spirto’, interweaved penetratingly with Orfeo’s plaintive entreaty to Charon that he might be permitted to cross the Styx to rescue his beloved Euridice, while the piccolo violins of Kati Debretzeni and Anne Schumann, lacked the bright incisiveness that modern instruments might have brought.  The diversity of accompaniment textures – with various instruments, harpsichord, organ, harp and chittarrone serving as continuo, and the ensemble groupings in the arioso and choral numbers constantly changing – did not always register as strongly as it might have done in a smaller performance space.  But, disadvantages can be turned to advantage, and the refusal of Gardiner and his soloists to reject nuance for noise in the face of the challenges of the acoustic forced the listener to lend an unwaveringly attentive and focused ear, making us forget the expansiveness of our surroundings and drawing us into the intimacy of the narrative.  Indeed, the level of concentration in the auditorium was almost as unbroken as that on stage.

In keeping with the aesthetic ethos of the age that music, though in no way inferior to the poetry, should strive to serve the text in such a way and so fittingly that it could not be replaced by any other form of expression, Monteverdi described Orfeo as a favola in music, and Vincenzo’s son and heir, Francesco, wrote to his brother Ferdinando, ‘Tomorrow in our academy we are going to do a play – a tale that is told in music’.  And, what story-telling this was: there was certainly no necessity for surtitles, especially as the largely Italian cast ensured that the text was enunciated meticulously and with unfailing expressive nuance.  This was practically a fully staged performance with costume, dance, choreography and theatre all playing their part.

The movements of the soloist and chorus, even the instrumentalists who played standing and seated and at times moved to the heights of the raking behind the performers, were fluid and dramatically persuasive, as our ears and eyes were asked to do some work.  The chorus were led onto the stage by Charon, triumphantly pronouncing their arrival with a percussive punch on his drum (perhaps in anticipation of his inevitable victory over these self-deluding mortals).  Thus, in the dance-like balletti such as ‘Lasciate i monti’ the springy, exciting hemiola triple rhythms were enlivened by lithe swaying and vibrant hand claps; in contrast to such joyful energy, the chorus sank to the floor, heads bowed, inconsolable after the loss of Euridice.  Soloists emerged from and retreated to the chorus with natural dramatic flow.  The Messenger brought her terrible news to Orfeo from the back of the Proms Arena: accompanied by the theorbo player, her slow progress through the massed Prommers deepened the agony of Orfeo’s unknowing wait for the tragic transformation of his fate.  Having lost Euridice a second time, Orfeo was further tormented by Echo’s taunting him from the furthest reaches of the upper Gallery during his final lament.  And, in the last Act, Apollo descended with majesty down the Hall’s steps to the stage platform, to prepare Orfeo for his final destiny.

Such on-going movement served to make the moments of stillness even more affecting.  Gardiner’s tempi initially struck me as surprisingly slow and steady, but this approach allowed the music time to reach us and be absorbed.  The five Acts were presented without interval and, at 2 hours in total, this was one of the most leisurely performance of the work that I have attended.  Gardiner directs with arms that flow and fold and roll like an alchemic dancer; the direction is always sure but never didactic.  Yet, while the slow tempi did perhaps sometimes dilute the impetus, the changes in dramatic direction were highly pointed.  Thus, there was great pathos and terror when, unaware of the tragedy which was to bereave them of love and delight, the exuberant revelries of Orfeo and the Nymphs and Shepherds at the start of Act 2 were interrupted by the Messenger’s arrival.  Similarly striking was Euridice’s urgent cry of knowledge ‘Ahi, vista troppo dolce e troppo amara!’ (Ah, sight too sweet and too bitter!) – embodying heart-breaking passion and pain – when Orfeo, in fear that the snap of Charon’s drum confirms that the Furies have snatched her from him, turns to gaze upon his love, only to see her, in an cruel instant, die and vanish once more.

With the English Baroque Soloists placed to the left and right of the central performance platform, and the brass and chorus raked at varying levels above, the theatron of classical Greek theatre was recreated.  Moreover, the compassion and catharsis of Greek tragedy was also communicated – as would have been the aim at that first Mantuan performance.  At that premiere, it was found that the ducal hall could not accommodate the large apparatus required to effect the miraculous descent of Apollo on a cloud machine, and a tragic ending was substituted, although the original ‘happy’ ending was restored when the work was repeated immediately afterwards in a different venue.  Here, we had none of the anguish and torment of the closing moments of the ROH production at the Roundhouse, when Gyula Orendt hung upside down from a harness, his outstretched arms desperately grasping for his beloved.  This Orfeo accepted his fate, and with dignity followed Apollo up the side-staircase of the Hall to the Heavens; the return of the chorus, attired in the brightly coloured dresses which they had abandoned for sombre mourning black, reinstated the ebullient mood of the Prologue and opening Acts, in which it seemed their glorious happiness could never end.  This was a performance in which beauty, harmony and consolation were placed above a more modern anxiety and despair, and as such the final dance assumed huge expressive significance – a symbol of transfiguration.

As Orfeo, Polish tenor Krystian Adam moved from an initial exuberance, as he rejoiced in praise of Love, to a daring reticence – alleviated by moments of striking eloquence – when assaulted by the deities’ power and punishment.  Adam’s tenor is warm, sweet and unfailingly appealing across the registers.  In ‘Possente spirto’ his passagework was exquisite, but occasionally the somewhat stylised delivery seemed mannered.  However, he – and Gardiner – achieved a wonderful stillness in this number, a quiet incantatory quality which seemed to embody Monteverdi’s desire for ‘a natural way of imitation’.  His whispering tone, when Orfeo has failed to stir Charon to accede to his request, was replete with pathos but also intimated the unshakeable core of confidence possessed by mortals.  Adam’s Act V Lament had even more emotional power than the exhibition and celebration of Orfeo’s artistic power in Act III.  One could not imagine this number delivered with more moving vocalism.

Prom 25 CR BBC Chris Christodoulou
(L-R) Mariana Flores and Francesca Aspromonte as Eurydice and Music in a performance of Monteverdi’s Orfeo at the BBC Proms on Tuesday 4 August, with the English Baroque Soloists, conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner.

Mariana Flores was a charming Euridice, her soprano bright and clear, the ornamented lines spun smoothly and with refinement.  Just as the soloists emerged from and retreated to the chorus, so the main figures in the drama were given continuity of presence; and thus it seemed natural that Flores should also take the role of Hope, who leads Orfeo to the shores of the Styx.  Here, she used her vivid sound and Monteverdi’s chromatic shades most effectively to illuminate text, but I found her vibrato overly fast, and her choreographed twists and leaps (there was no accreditation in the programme for movement direction) somewhat too stylised.

Making an even more remarkable impression than the two protagonists of the tragedy, Francesca Aspromonte was astounding as both La Musica and the Messenger.  She relished the theatrical aspects of the performance, immediately holding centre-stage as La Musica.  In this strophic Prologue, she employed varied recitation, revealing a precise piano, beautiful tone and, in later stanzas, strong ornaments and trills.  Aspromonte achieved remarkable concentration and great intimacy in the third stanza in which La Musica, having introduced herself, relates her power over man while singing to the accompaniment of her own lyre.  A guitar was passed to the soprano by Gardiner, like a ceremonious gift, as she sang, ‘Io, su cetera d’or cantando solglio/ Moral orecchio lusingar talora’ (Singing to a golden lyre, I am wont sometimes to charm mortal ears’).  She certainly beguiled ours.  She declaimed freely, and took risks with dynamics and accentuation; she was not afraid to diminish, to let her voice become a thread of silk.  And she recreated this striking presence as the Messenger, her entrance from the back of the auditorium and passage through the Arena prepared by the subtle deceleration at end of Orfeo’s preceding, and sadly prophetic, paean to his Euridice, ‘Dopo il duol vi è più content,/ Dopo il mal vi è più felice’ (After sorrow, one is all the more content, after woe, one is all the happier).  Her highly dramatic declamation awakened Adam’s Orfeo to the tragedy which awaited him, and she answered his subdued, fearful question, ‘Ohimè che odo?’ (Alas, what do I hear?), with a statement of heart-rending simplicity, ‘La tua diletta sposa è morta’. (Thy beloved bride is dead).  Aspromonte’s lower register was deeply expressive here; this was one of the few moments that Gardiner, elsewhere aware of the demands of the venue, did not conduct.

Gianluca Buratto was cast as both Charon and Pluto, slipping on his black jacket to denote the latter.   Seated and slumped lethargically and/or dejectedly at the harpsichord stage left, the sonorous bass expressed Charon’s fearsome power and latent danger, as he commanded Orfeo to ‘Curb your foolish presumption’; his simple ‘Che?’ (What?) was flung at the impudent Orfeo – both a taunt and a threat.  Francesca Boncompagni was superb as Prosperina; the arioso of gratitude that she delivers when Plato yields to her intercession was crystalline and immensely beautiful.

The rest of the cast were similarly outstanding, with tenor Andrew Tortise in particular shining as the First Shepherd and Apollo.  His sound was warm and his projection unfailingly penetrating and clear.  Tenors Nicholas Mulroy and Gareth Treseder, bass David Shipley, and countertenor James Hall were strong dramatically and vocally as Shepherds and Spirits.

The Monteverdi Chorus, singing from memory, demonstrated a wonderful control of dynamics, colour and expressive nuance as they roved through Monteverdi’s diverse stylistic idioms, finding great vitality in the flexible rhythms, madrigalian gestures and changing textures and harmonic palette.  The elaborate end to Act II, the Chorus of nymphs and shepherds, ‘Ahi caso acerbo’ (Ah, bitter blow!), was a highpoint.  ‘Ahi’: simply a sigh or cry.  But Gardiner and Monteverdi choir made it a gesture of huge emotional import.  They attacked the first syllable with a stabbing sforzando, which instantly faded and then expanded in a welling of pain.  The middle lines of the six-line text were a quiet legato, a pleading that no man should trust in fleeting and frail happiness; then came unrest, expressed through the flexible dynamics and vigorous rhythms of the final couplet that warns that such joy will inevitably fly away to a precipice at the top of the highest summit.  If such collective attention to detail was not impressive enough, the repetition of the first two lines after an ensuing sinfonia and solo interjections, retreated as if sung from the tomb, flat and cold, while the restatement which concludes the Act restored the pained pronunciation and passion of the first utterance.  In this section Gardiner demonstrated a wonderful sense of the musico-dramatic structure, of how the larger formal units encompass moments of great individuality and expressive detail.

Francesco Gonzago had anticipated excitedly, ‘All the actors shall speak in music’.  In this performance, every word was animated by the singing, individual or choral.  As the dancers formed a whirling circle around John Eliot Gardiner in the final moresca, the emotional and dramatic qualities of the work that incited such exhilaration in Mantua on that night 400 years ago were relived.  Here, to draw on the words of the great Monteverdi scholar, Leo Schrade, was the intimation that the ‘extreme joy and serene happiness, to which only the immortals seem to have the right, are a challenge to Fate’.

Claire Seymour

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