The personification of Music, in a stunning shot-silk gown accompanying herself with a baroque guitar: “singing to a golden lyre, I am wont, sometimes to charm mortal ears …”. Thus began an evening full of whimsical staging and first-class musical performance that charmed the audience’s mortal ears for just over two hours, and proved that Sir John Eliot Gardiner remains one of the great names in baroque-music interpretation.
Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, is a drama of musical tableaux, and adapts well to a semi-staged performance. The staging had an informal feel, with soloists leaving and rejoining the chorus to create the tableaux. Singers played percussion, clapped their hands and danced; the women wore bright 1950s prom dresses for the Thracian scenes, but the whole choir stood as a sombre black-clad unit as a chorus of underworld spirits. The Monteverdi Choir were responsive to every nuance of dynamic change, and Gardiner used the space creatively – Echo came to us from the Albert Hall’s gallery; Apollo descended via the stairs; Messenger pushed her way (with tame chittarrone in tow) through the crowd in the arena.
Monteverdi’s scoring allows for an instrumental ensemble full of interesting timbres, and no expense was spared to recreate this. The English Baroque Soloists played peerlessly, and all of Monteverdi’s effects were given full rein: two sections of instruments alternating across a space; the contrast between the ‘daylight’ strings and organ and the reedy dark texture of brass and regal for the underworld scenes; the two violins swooping around Orfeo’s vocal lines; the exciting twang of four chittarroni being plucked at the same time.
All of last night’s soloists were perfectly cast, and the contrasting voices were used artfully in the solos, duets and trios of the first two acts (whose intermedio-style repeating pattern of vocal section and instrumental interlude can sometimes feel dull and repetitive), such that every vocal section had a different timbre and nuance. Andrew Tortise, Gareth Treseder, James Hall and David Shipley were perfect foils for each other as Shepherds and Spirits. Francesca Aspromonte’s bell-like voice was perfect as Music, and, in muted tones, equally apposite as the Messenger who brings news of Eurydice’s death. Eurydice herself gets little to sing, but Mariana Flores gave a compelling performance, as did Francesca Boncompagni as the bruised-yet-seductive Proserpina. Krystian Adam’s Orfeo seduced everyone. His voice was not the piercing tenor one sometimes hears in the role, but warm and honeyed, and true on every note; his rendering of Possente spirto, sung whilst almost embracing the harpist who created his lyre for him, left the Albert Hall in silence. Equally magnificent was Gianluca Buratto, whose Charon was delivered in a dark basso profundo that was, by turns moving yet obdurate. With a change in posture, the addition of a suit jacket, and a transformation in vocal tone to a harder edge, Buratto became a Plutocrat, persuaded by his trophy-wife into a deal that he knows is weighted in his favour.
The final Moresca became almost a curtain call – singers came to the front, dancing in groups, and formed a ring around the Director, until their measured clapping erupted into a vast and richly-deserved Prom-concert applause.