Monteverdi - L'Orfeo

Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Paris, Tuesday May 28 2019

Direction: Emiliano Gonzalez-Toro, assisted by continuo leader Thomas Dunford. Semi-staging: Mathilde Etienne. Costumes: Karine Godier, Sébastien Blondin. Orfeo: Emiliano Gonzalez-Toro. Euridice, Musica: Giulia Semenzato. Pastore: Mathias Vidal. Pastore: David Szigetvari. Apollo: Fulvio Bettini. Pastore, La Speranza: Eva Zaïcik. Proserpina: Mathilde Etienne. Plutone, Pastore: Frédéric Caton. La Messagiera: Lea Desandre. Pastore, Caronte: Jérôme Varnier. Ninfa: Maud Gnidzaz. I Gemelli.

My love affair with Monteverdi's Orfeo goes back a long way. I was acquainted with it from the radio before I went up to university. As an undergraduate, I was excited to be invited to play in a performance at the university's Senate House, and disappointed when I turned up with my instrument for the first rehearsal to be told by the surprised conductor - Stephen Barlow IIRC - that he hadn't expected and didn't need a double bass.

When, after graduation, I went to work in Iran I had only a handful of cassettes with me, listening to them over and over on a tacky Japanese 'boom box', and that's how I came to know Orfeo more or less by heart, from Corboz's 1968 version with Eric Tappy I think - and associate it with the sculpted white walls and pink velvet upholstery of that flat in Nilufar Street, in those days at Tehran's far northern fringe where it gave way to mountain walks, now engulfed by the metropolis - just as, incidentally, I still associate Bruckner's 6th, one of the few recorded works I had with me in Turkey a couple of years later (facing stiff competition for my attention from Bambaşka Biri, Ajda Pekkan's Turkish cover version of I Will Survive) with Ankara's choking winter smog.

Visiting Mantova during the break between Iran and Turkey, I was sorry to find the room where the work was thought to have been first performed and where I was tempted to kneel and kiss the floor in homage had been blandly remodelled under Maria Theresa.  Orfeo is still one of the few operas I listen to regularly at home, most often in Harnoncourt's 1969 recording, sometimes in René Jacobs', sometimes Emmanuelle Haïm's. And I'm still fascinated that Monteverdi's first opera, as we all know one of the very first and still the earliest regularly performed, should be one of the very best, with at least two, perhaps three of the greatest arias in the repertoire, and set a standard for simplicity, sincerity and nobility of sentiment seldom met since - perhaps in reality seldom even sought after.

'Ça ne vit pas' I quoted my neighbour as saying at Hippolyte et Aricie a couple of nights earlier. I don't think he'd have said the same had he been at this Orfeo. Two things made it particularly lively. The first was the mise en espace, a minimal semi-staging. Not that there was anything fantastic about it: not for the first time (though it would be nice to think it was the last) Orfeo and his friends were got up as a barefoot new age sect, most likely tending their flocks for wool, not kebabs. But the singing team - for a team it most definitely was - threw themselves into the action with a good deal of vigour, making the most of an average, if not outright bad job.

Monteverdi (so they say)
The second was the performance approach and style. I wrote 'direction' and not 'conductor' at the top of this page because nobody conducted as such. Gonzalez-Toro and the lutenist Thomas Dunford were both credited as leading, but sometimes others gave the crucial nod or bow-stroke and overall the impression I got was of a phenomenal degree of mutual respect, attentiveness and responsiveness between players and singers, so well-rehearsed as to allow great flexibility. In addition, the twenty-odd musicians nearly all played different instruments, some of them switching between several, leading to a particularly rich, glowing and glittering tapestry of sound. You could see, from the body language, they were enjoying it. As the singers were all remarkably good as well, whether in leading roles or lesser ones where you might have expected compromise, the impression you got was that everyone, instrumentalist or vocalist, was a virtuoso but, as they formed one large, well-trained, mutually supportive team, no-one a star.

Nevertheless some were more striking than others and as I see in reviews, which in particular depends on individual taste. Mathias Vidal stood out from the start as a particularly vigorous and dramatically committed shepherd. Lea Desandre was a striking Messaggiera, Jérôme Varnier a remarkably capable Caronte compared with some I've heard and Fulvio Bettini was just outstanding as Apollo, a very nice surprise at the end, very nearly outclassing Orfeo himself. At the beginning I was afraid I might find Emiliano Gonzalez-Toro a disappointment. There was a bit too much tremolo in his voice for me, short-windedness forced him to break phrases for breath, he lacked vocal seductiveness... and the semi-staging had him set too far back for a voice of his size in a theatre like the TCE. But by 'Questi i campi di Tracia' I was won over and the 'Saliam' duet with the wonderful Apollo was a magnificent culmination before the final 'back-down-to-earth' chorus.

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