, favola in musica
was first performed during the carnival in Mantua on 24 February 1607, so it’s likely that the present recording was made, in October 2006, to be issued in time for the quatercentenary celebrations of what in essence is the first great opera. During the last half-century it has been recorded many times, the earliest complete version being made as early as 1939. For me it was the Archiv Produktion issue under August Wenzinger from the mid-1950s that became the gateway to this work when I bought a very worn second-hand copy a couple of decades later. It was the presence of the young Fritz Wunderlich as a shepherd that triggered me but the hero of the performance was excellent Helmut Krebs in the title role – and Wenzinger’s edition of the music, which opened new worlds to many. By the time I bought his set it had probably been overshadowed by Harnoncourt’s edition. Since then new versions have come and gone and I have no general overview of the total output, but I have owned Sergio Vartolo’s earlier recording on Naxos for a number of years and thought it would be interesting to compare them, made ten years apart.
The first thing to notice is the considerably larger instrumental forces he employed back in 1996: forty players as opposed to only half that number in 2006. He also introduced some extra voices for the choruses, so the new L’Orfeo
is smaller in scale. With six string players against twenty in 1996 textures are lean and the playing is lively and intense. To be honest, though, I was perfectly satisfied with the playing on the older set. Only on direct comparison did I sometimes find that the older version felt heavier. Timings, however, tell me that in general the tempo differences are very small, so the sense of heaviness has more to do with vigour than speed. Readers who own the Naxos set need not feel short-changed on this account.
There are also some textual differences concerning the end of the opera. The libretto printed in 1607 in connection with the premiere, ends with a scene where Orfeo is attacked by furious Bacchantes, threatening to kill him, though obviously Orfeo escapes. There is no music preserved for this scene. In 1609 Monteverdi set another ending, where Apollo descends and brings Orfeo to Heaven. This music is preserved, which shows that Monteverdi wanted a happy end to the story. In the Naxos issue both scenes are performed, the Bacchantes’ scene with actors speaking their lines – or rather shouting them! This is a blood-curling and tumultuous scene and one can’t help wondering what it sounded like in 1607. Monteverdi was a master of dissonance and was probably able to make something terrible of this. It’s thrilling to hear the scene without the music but, however good the actors are, if I want to sleep well after an Orfeo
session in my listening room late in the evening, I choose the Apollo scene!
Musically this opera has been analyzed and annotated umpteen times and I only want to mention that every time I listen to it I am still astounded. It’s so psychologically unerring. The arrival of the Messenger (CD 1 tr. 6) is a turning point that always grabs me by the throat. Here I must take Brilliant Classics to task for the scant cue points. Why, for instance, isn’t there a cue point for Rosa del ciel
, the messenger’s Ahi, caso acerbo
or several other places. These are key scenes one would want to go back to, or directly to, just because they are key points. The Naxos is much better in this respect: 13 cue points on CD 1 and 16 on CD 2; Brilliant has 8 on CD 1 and 7 on CD 2.
The singing is on a high level with a very good chorus and first class contributions from the many secondary singers. Sylvia Pozzer who sings Musica as well as Euridice, is lovely and fresh voiced. William Matteuzzi is probably not a singer one associates with baroque repertoire – rather he is known as a Rossini specialist – but he is an excellent Orfeo, expressive and able to vary his tone exquisitely. Sara Mingardo is star casting as Messagera and Proserpina. As the latter she sings gloriously in act IV. There is also a strong and expressive Plutone in Loris Bertolo, but Angela Bucci’s Speranza doesn’t sound very hopeful and her intonation is insecure. Gianpaolo Dal Dosso’s Caronte has all the low notes but has to struggle to reach them, resulting in some rather ugly sounds. Carlo Lepore on the Naxos set is much to be preferred. Gianpaolo Fagotto is a bright Apollo.
Recorded sound is good on both sets. I must mention that Alessandro Carmigiani is a very good Orfeo on the Naxos set, more ‘early-baroque-singer’ than Matteuzzi but not quite as expressive.
Both sets are worthy readings of this fascinating opera. If forced to choose I pick the Brilliant set for the marginally leaner and more springy playing, for Matteuzzi’s impressive Orfeo and for the glorious singing of Sara Mingardo and Sylvia Pozzer. Since I already have the Naxos set I can confidently go there when I want to hear the best Caronte and, when I am in that mood, the tremendous Bacchantes scene.