The Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists under the incomparable direction of Sir John Eliot Gardiner attempted the impossible last night, as part of the 2015 BBC Proms season. To perform Monteverdi’s Orfeo under the cavernous dome of the Royal Albert Hall to an audience in excess of 5,500 is perhaps the equivalent of a string quartet playing in Wembley Stadium. It says something for the reputation of Eliot Gardiner and for the ever-broadening appeal of Early Music that the hall was pretty much sold out. This, the first surviving opera was first resurrected at the beginning of the 20th century. So great is its power that I have had the pleasure of reviewing three London performances in less than two years.
The two-hour span of this early opera was played without an interval. Such was the involvement and concentration of this audience that you could count on the fingers of one hand the number of people who nipped out during the tuning break. For large stretches of the performance, the audience listened with such rapt attention you could have heard a proverbial pin drop.
If you are a regular attendee of Handel operas, the majority of the audience are well-heeled and over a certain age (albeit we don’t see the outreach work undertaken in schools during the day.) The great thing about the BBC Promenade season is that everyone is welcome. I saw a mother and daughter who brought in rustling snacks and giggled over text messages, a man with grey dreadlocks, an array of tourists from every continent. There are one or two people regularly in the Arena who clearly only have one pair of socks in the sock drawer, possibly don’t even own a sock drawer, but for £5 upwards anyone (socks or no socks) who so chooses can enjoy an evening of great music making such as this.
And it was indeed an evening of great music making. It is always fascinating to compare one of the British pioneers of the Early Music movement with the latest approach to “authentic” music making elsewhere in Europe and the USA. The Academy of Ancient Music at the Barbican eighteen months’ ago cast good quality British Handelian singers led by John Mark Ainsley and Sophie Bevan, giving the performance huge vocal intensity, set in a thoroughly modern production. The Royal Opera at the Roundhouse employed the expertise of the Early Opera Company with a mix of young and more seasoned operatic soloists and performed with amplification to fill the space. What these two performances had in common was a more naturalistic way of singing ornamentation than the a-a-a style one used to hear back in the 1970s and 80s.
Eliot Gardiner’s singers were an intriguing mix of members of the Monteverdi Choir (founded in 1964) with a handful of international soloists, all making their Proms debut in this performance. The decision to sing the ornaments in the “old” stuttering style on this occasion added to the atmosphere. I don’t know which approach to ornamentation is “correct.” There is an argument that, despite all the advances in the authenticity movement, there is no way we can actually know how it sounded in 1607. It also seems to me truly authentic to work to the strengths of your players and singers on the day. This was certainly the case with the wonderful improvisatory skills of the English Baroque Soloists, plus the ability of a handful of imported soloists to blend in with the stalwarts of the Monteverdi Choir and work as an ensemble.
By contrast with the Royal Opera House production, the libretto was performed in Italian. For a drama which is essentially recitative or a single vocal line with a light accompaniment, I’ll stick my neck out here and say it has to be performed in Italian or you lose all the musical and speech rhythms and nuances. Whilst Monteverdi specifies which instruments should be employed and provides melodic line and bass line, choices about how the instruments are deployed and the style of ornamentation is largely at the musical director’s discretion. In Eliot Gardiner’s reading I heard many effects and gestures I had never heard before, for example the mournful brass and the ecclesiastical nature of the Chorus of Spirits compared with riotous clapping and drumming of the nymphs and shepherds defined the difference between the two worlds. The ritornello, intended as an evocation of the power of Music, reminded me of the lines used as an aide memoire in oral poetry, such as “rosy-fingered dawn” in Homer. The lament, “Possente spirito” sung by Orfeo to Charon, powerful enough to persuade Proserpina to be his advocate for the return of Eurydice, on this occasion was the most intense and compelling piece of music making I have heard in a very, very long time.
This was in part because the contribution made by the members of the English Baroque Soloists was easily as important as the contributions made by the singers, making Orfeo a drama in which words and music are given equal weight. This is a long way from the pit orchestra accompanying a grand opera. Key players in the ensemble were as much principal protagonists as the singers. This is one of the reasons why the obvious amplification of both singers and ensemble was forgiveable in this context. I spoke about Eliot Gardiner and his players attempting the impossible: with a little subtle amplification, instead of a modern symphony orchestra playing out to the audience, singers and instrumentalists drew us in to their intimate world.
In view of the importance of the text in this drama, it was logical that Eliot Gardiner imported some fine Italian singers, able to give their all to a text in their native language. Francesca Aspromonte displayed a beautiful, bell-like soprano, impressing me hugely when she not only accompanied herself on the guitar when playing Music, but also approached Orfeo gradually, progressing around the Arena, accompanied by a chitarrone as she reluctantly relayed the sad story of Eurydice’s demise.
The second notable Italian singer was Gianluca Buratto, a bass (or perhaps bass-baritone) who injected a lot of energy into the choruses by playing a tambour. He also convincingly played both Charon and Pluto, changing from one role to another by putting on a jacket. Apparently it is not the first time he has carried both roles, having already completed the double act for Christophe Rousset. This is a very fine opera singer of international repute, well able to transcend the amplification and be heard in full voice at the back of the auditorium.
The Argentinian soprano, Mariana Flores brought her own strong character and vibrant physical presence to the roles of Eurydice and Hope. She was very much a mover and shaker when it came to the dancing nymphs and shepherds, bringing moments of Flamenco into the mix. She has a sweet-toned but light Baroque voice which works well in the role, but without amplification would have been a mismatch with both Signor Buratto and the young man playing Orfeo. There is something about truly operatic voices which enables the singer to resonate even when turned away from the audience, whereas a Baroque specialist voice is by contrast more of a chamber instrument.
I know there is a tradition of baritones taking on the role of Orfeo, but I was delighted at the performance given by Polish tenor, Krystian Adam. Some of the sounds he made reminded me of Villazón at his best. It wasn’t until I looked into his background that I realized Mr Adam was part of the controversial Idomeneo at the Royal Opera House last year, doing a passable impression of Gene Simmonds as the High Priest. Particularly in “Possente spirito” at the heart of Act Three, where Orfeo sings duets with a pair of violini piccoli as well as double harp, I found his performance spellbinding. I sincerely hope he is not denied a further chance to appear at the ROH, as sometimes happens when a production gets bad reviews.
Amongst the British singers who played shepherds and spirits it was David Shipley’s beautifully resonant bass which impressed the most. The others lost out if they sang upstage behind the band. Francesca Boncompagni as Proserpina thankfully sang downstage and impressively managed to be both dignified and coquettish at the same time. Andrew Tortise balanced well with his fellow shepherds when singing duets, but really came into his own in a cameo as Apollo, which allowed him to project a beautiful lyric sound out into the auditorium.
It was obviously part of the plan that the soloists were listed in the back of the programme as part of the Monteverdi choir as well as in the cast list of principals: this was a collaborative, ensemble piece on all levels, emphasized at the end when members of the chorus danced around Sir John Eliot Gardiner in a circle. And the dance was a unique feature of this performance. As well as singing, playing tambourine and tambour and clapping the rhythms, everyone on earth moved in time to the music, drawing us into the ancient world, to folk tradition and the music of celebration, the simple life, true love and the love of music itself.