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Monday, May 4, 2015

Concert Review: The Most Exquisite Claudio

John Eliot Gardiner conducts Monteverdi at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Photo of Sir John Eliot Gardiner © 2014 by James Cheadle Low.
Painting of Claudio Monteverdi by Bernardo Tozzi circa 1640. Photo alteration by the author.
Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir rose to prominence fifty years ago with a concert of Monteverdi's Vespri della Beata Vergine at Cambridge. Last week, conductor and choir celebrated that anniversary at Carnegie Hall with two concerts. These performances, featuring Monteverdi's Vespers on Thursday and the opera L'Orfeo on Friday, were the culmination of Carnegie's month-long Before Bach festival. They mark a half century at the vanguard of the historically informed performance movement.

Monteverdi wrote the Vespers in 1610, as an "audition" piece when he was seeking employment in Venice. It is a setting of five psalms and five motets, a hymn and a Magnificat, all based on texts celebrating the Virgin Mary. The diverse texts demonstrate a wide range of musical styles, including solo arias, polyphonic choruses, and even an instrumental movement. The musical themes employed here can be heard in the works of Vivaldi and Mozart, first appearances of building blocks that would become the veritable DNA of modern music.

Thursday night's concert featured the Vespers played by the English Baroque Soloists, an ensemble specially dedicated to playing music on historically accurate instruments. Indeed, the orchestra Toccata that opened the work featured cornett (sort of a cross between a recorder and a trumpet), sackbut (small trombone) and dolcino (an early short bassoon), playing a stately staccato fanfare that may have been an anthem associated with the Gonzagas, the wealthy Mantua family that were Monteverdi's early patrons.

When the voices entered with the opening Dixit Dominus the effect was extraordinary. Here was polyphony in all its detailed glory, with singers stretching syllables, repeating lines and in some cases adding whole new musical ideas but drawing the maximum detail and meaning from each syllable and word. Monteverdi follows the psalm choruses with motets, sensual texts based on the Song of Songs. Nigra sum was a showcase for tenor Krystian Adam. Pulchra es featured a pair of soprano soloists.

For Duo Seraphim Sir John deployed singers and theorbo players to the upper vaults of Carnegie Hall. With another tenor and continuo playing onstage, they succeeded in re-creating the celebrated "echo" effect that Monteverdi achieved in the Church of San Marco in Venice. The instrumental players followed with the Sonata sopra Santa Maria, a mostly instrumental section, and a gorgeous, deceptively simple hymn Stella Maris. The two-hour performance climaxed with the Magnificat, an account of the revelation of Mary's pregnancy, combining the resources of solo singers and chorus in something very close to music drama.

On Friday evening, drama became the focus with L'Orfeo, the earliest surviving complete opera in the catalogue. As performed here by the Monteverdi Choir, this work was shown not to be a museum piece but a vibrant, living drama, bursting with melodic ideas and a sense of celebration and joy in its opening acts. Textures are spare and even arid at times, and the orchestra and chorus interweave seamlessly with the voice.

In a masterstroke, Monteverdi changes tone to minor keys, creating a gloomy twilight and then total darkness with the announcement of Euridice's fate and the journey to the gloomy Underworld. In the fifth act, the tone lightens one more time with the performance of Monteverdi's revised ending, where Apollo (Andrew Tortise) arrives to bring Orpheus to Olympus. (In the original 1607 version, the Bacchantes tore him to pieces.)

Music herself (soprano Francesca Aspromonte, who also sang Euridice) sings first in L'Orfeo, settng up the tragedy in a strophic verse answered by an orchestral ritornello and a series of bucolic choruses. Standouts on this journey to the underworld included Mr. Adam's Orpheus, bright of tone and compelling as Orpheus, whose beloved Eurydice dies on their wedding day. Also impressive: sonorous bass Gianluca Buratto in the double roles of Charon (the ferryman at the Styx) and Pluto, the Lord of the Underworld. One of the best scenes and a predecessor of domestic operatic comedy was the domestic argument between Pluto and his wife Proserpine (Francesca Boncompagni). Like everything else in L'Orfeo, this was an idea far ahead of its time.

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