Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Monteverdi's L'Orfeo at the Proms

Monterverdi L'Orfeo at the Proms, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Mariana Flores, Francesca Aspromonte - photo credit BBC/Chris Christodoulou
Monterverdi L'Orfeo at the Proms, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Mariana Flores, Francesca Aspromonte
photo credit BBC/Chris Christodoulou
Monteverdi L'Orfeo; Krystian Adam, Mariana Flores, Francesca Aspromonte, Gianluca Buratto, Francesca Boncompagni, Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, Sir John Eliot Gardiner; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 4 2015
Star rating: 4.0

The power of music: a young cast in a semi-stage account of Monteverdi's first opera

John Eliot Gardiner conducted a much anticipated performance of Monteverdi's first opera L'Orfeo at the BBC Proms on 4 August 2015, with his own Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists. This was far more than a mere concert, performed from memory by the choir and a team of young soloists including Krystian Adam as Orfeo, Mariana Flores as Eurydice and La Speranza, Francesca Aspromonte as La Musica and La Messagera, Gianluca Buratto as Caronte and Plutone, Francesca Boncompagni as Proserpina, Andrew Tortise, Nicholas Mulroy, Esther Brazil, Gareth Treseder, James Hall and David Shipley, this was a full staging with action and dancing taking place on the platform in and around the instrumentalists.

Monterverdi L'Orfeo at the Proms, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Krystian Adam, Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists - photo credit BBC/Chris Christodoulou
Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Krystian Adam,
Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists
photo credit BBC/Chris Christodoulou
The vast expanse of the Royal Albert Hall is, frankly, not the most sensible place to perform a work like L'Orfeo. It demanded, and received, intense concentration from the audience. John Eliot Gardiner used quite large forces, with a choir of over 40 (including eight members of the Monteverdi Choir Apprentices Programme). The soloists were also in this group with most stepping out to sing their roles. The orchestra numbered some 30 people, but the moments when they were all playing was very rare and much of the vocal line was accompanied by the continuo group of harpsichord, organ, harp, cello and four chitarrones.The peculiar effect of the acoustic could be heard in the opening toccata when the cornetts and sackbuts filled the hall, leaving the other instruments virtually inaudible.

John Eliot Gardiner is a veteran of Proms performances and understands how to make the Royal Albert Hall work. His tempos allowed space for the music to develop and it was noticeable that he directed all the music, even the smaller scale sections where in a smaller venue the conductor would be redundant. But Gardiner's speeds seemed as if they were also a personal choice, this felt like a performance where we were being encouraged to stop and smell the daisies. There was a consistently relaxed feeling, and a constant sense of allowing space for the elaborate vocal lines to flourish. The great moments such as Orfeo's Possente spirto possessed a mesmerising beauty and a sense that the incredible ornament was really part of the music, but they completely lacked urgency and a feeling of the drama progressing. L'Orfeo is an opera in which very little happens and we did rather lose the sense of a dramatic narrative. This was perhaps one of the longest performances I have experienced, lasting well over two hours if you include the pauses for re-tuning with well over 110 minutes of music.


This was very much an all singing, all dancing production. Mariana Flores and Francesca Aspromonte took a lively part in the dancing during Acts One and Two, and there was no sense that this staging was 'semi', it fully occupied the stage. No director or choreography was credited, but the singers all used a rather stylised gestural language which, in a performer like Krystian Adam, I started to find mannered rather than expressive. One of the strengths was the intense way the smaller roles were characterised, the various nymphs, shepherds and spirits who step out from the chorus and then retire. Here they became a strong part of the drama.

For me the most thrilling moment was the opening, with the Prologue sung by Francesca Aspromonte as La Musica. She sang with daring slowness, but made every single note and phrase tell despite quite a slim-line voice. Having a number of native Italian speakers in the cast meant that this was a production in which the text really did mean something, and we certainly didn't need surtitles. Rather neatly Aspromonte accompanied herself (very creditably) on a guitar at one point. Not every singer managed to make such a strong impression, but when Aspromonte returned as La Messagiera she was equally vivid, though here she was forced to deliver the solo whilst walking through the promenaders accompanied simply by an ambulant chitarrone player.

Mariana Flores was a charming, soft-grained Eurydice who never quite managed to make a strong impression musically and rather over-acted her love for Orfeo to compensate. She made a poised La Speranza.

Krystian Adam as Orfeo was of course the centre of attention. Adam did not sing to the hall, and forced everyone to concentrate, to centre their attention on him. It was a performance well worth concentrating on. He has a lovely, flexible soft-grained lyric voice and had clearly though about the intensely elaborate vocal line so that it had a naturalness to the way it sat in his voice. Possente spirto was completely mesmerising, and time really did stop. Fatally so, in that we often seemed to lose a sense of dramatic urgency. But this was one of the most beautiful accounts of the role that I have ever heard.

Gianluca Buratto was a wonderfully dark voice Plutone and Caronte. Finely implacable as Caronte, he revealed ultimately a softer side as Plutone. Here he was aided by Francesca Boncomopagni's elegant, slim-voice but highly expressive Proserpina.

The smaller roles were all very finely taken. Esther Brazil stood out as the Nymph, whilst Andrew Tortise effortlessly commanded both the music and the stage as Shepherd I and Apollo. I am a little unclear who played whom for the rest, as I think the programme got things wrong. Gareth Treseder was credited as Shepherd 2 and Spirit 2, with Nicholas Mulroy as Spirit 1, but I think that it was the other way round. No matter, they and James Hall and David Shripley, produced some vivid and highly characterised singing.

The Monteverdi Choir were in superb form, singing with a lovely flexibility and vividness. The performance was almost worth it for them alone, and the lightness of their performance belied the large number.

All were well supported by Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the English Baroque Soloists. Inevitably in a venue as large as the Royal Albert Hall the individual solo instrumental contributions can blur, but the overall effect was a stunning riot of virtuoso technique and orchestral colour.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner presided over a profoundly beautiful, and strongly characterised account of the score. There were some glorious moments, and this was very much about the power of music. But, for me, Gardiner's approach robbed it of the underlying dramatic urgency that the plot needs.

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