Tuesday 15 May 2018

All-star Orfeo - Iestyn Davies and Sophie Bevan at the London Festival of Baroque Music

Gluck: Orfeo et Eurydice
Gluck: Orfeo et Eurydice
Gluck Orfeo ed Euridice; Iestyn Davies, Sophie Bevan, Rebecca Bottone, La Nuova Musica, David Bates; London Festival of Baroque Music at St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on 13 May 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Gluck's original 1762 Orfeo in a starry performance

This year’s London Festival of Baroque Music has as its theme ‘Treasures of the Grand Siècle’ and the festival brochure is very French: gold Sun King and etching of Versailles, so I had to double-check when I realised this concert was the 1762, Vienna version (in Italian) of Orfeo ed Euridice, Gluck’s take on the Orpheus myth. David Bates conducted La Nuova Musica with Iestyn Davies as Orfeo, Sophie Bevan as Euridice and Rebecca Bottone as Amore at St John's Smith Square on 13 May 2018.

What we heard tonight was, more or less, the original version of the opera, but with the addition of the Elysian Fields music, scored for solo flute and strings, that was one of the additions for the Paris version of 1774.

In our version, though the language is Italian, there was a definite French feel: lack of flashy virtuosity; accompagnato recitatives; extended dances and wonderful choruses where the voices move in blocks so we can hear the text very clearly.

Tonight’s performance was one of the major attractions of the Festival and it was being recorded. The auditorium was full, as was the stage, with 34 in the band, four per part in the chorus and the three soloists positioned downstage left and separated slightly for the benefit of the recording mics. There was nothing semi-staged about this event; the singers stood stock-still (so as not to compromise the sound quality – though it also meant there were slightly scary moments for the ensemble as the conductor was a long was away and just outside their peripheral vision).

The three principal roles were household names (certainly for this audience) and Iestyn Davies was clearly the star attraction. His voice is even-toned and consistently beautiful, and we were in no doubt of his ability to charm all things animate and inanimate. From his opening cry of ‘Euridice!’ to interrupt the chorus, to his pleading with the Furies, the sweetness worked. Nevertheless I was probably in a minority in the audience wanting a bit more of an edge in the dramatic scene with Euridice in Act 3. Sophie Bevan’s feistiness and desperation was clear, and the two voices blended beautifully, but the charm clearly wasn’t working with his dead beloved. Rebecca Bottone resisted the temptation to do the soubrette thing for Amore, and her matter-of-factness contrasted with Orfeo’s wilfulness.

The 16-strong chorus provided much variety as mourners, Furies and narrator. As Furies they punched through with their ‘No!’ – showing the limits to Orfeo’s powers. And the rollicking final chorus ‘Trionfi Amore’ had, to my ears, a revolutionary feel.

Orfeo is a story about the power of music, and David Bates brought some wonderful things from the band. There was huge variety in the ‘echoes’, the spectacular storm (with thunder and wind coming from the SJSS gallery) at the beginning of Act 2, terrific brass playing throughout, the glorious ‘Elysian Fields’ music with Georgia Browne on solo flute, the arresting harp music from Karen Vaughan, and all the rest. It felt that they took the risks that the singers daren’t take.

Reviewed by Ruth Hansford

Elsewhere on this blog:
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  • Gilbert & Cellier: A work of real musical personality, The Mountebanks rediscovered  (★★★★) - CD review
  • Vivica Genaux & Sonia Prina recreate the music sung by two great castratos at the Wigmore Hall  (★★★★) - concert review
  • The story of a journey: Roderick Williams & Christopher Glynn in Schubert's Winter Journey  (★★★★★) - CD review
  • Welcome to the Magical Garden or perhaps the Garden of Magic: the piano music of Robert Saxton (★★★★) - CD review
  • Philip Venables' 4:48 Psychosis returns (★★★★) - Opera review
  • Thrilling revival: Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at Covent Garden (★★★★★) - Opera review
  • Striking double in Clapham: Shadwell Opera debuts a new work with powerful Janacek song-cycle (★★★½) - opera review
  • Music from Handel's London Theatre Orchestra (★★★★)  - CD review
  • Passio: from Tallis & Purcell to Kevin Hartnett via Bach (★★★)  - CD review
  • Out of the parlour and into the recital room - Hubert Parry's English lyrics (★★★★)  -  CD review
  • Beethoven unbound and Schubert cycles, I chat to Welsh pianist Llŷr Williams - interview
  • Bernstein, Debussy, Parry, Smyth, Bridge, Boulanger, Owen - BBC Proms 2018 - preview
  • What an unalloyed joy! And if all this isn’t advert enough for some sensible funding I don’t know what is (★★★★) - concert review
  • Songs of Vain Glory: Sophie Bevan & Sebastian Wybrew (★★★★) - CD review
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