MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

La storia di Orfeo: Reframing an Operatic Myth

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Amanda Forsythe and Philippe Jaroussky with Boston Early Music Chamber Ensemble and co-directors Stephen Stubbs and Paul O’Dette

In contemporary times, the connotations of myth have been degraded to suggest something like “fake news.” Still, the truths they contain make the stories passed down as myths an inexhaustible source for inspiration and enlightenment. It seems inevitable that opera, from the start, needed to fall in love with the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in particular and has needed to return to it again and again — much as the legendary hero longs to be reunited with his beloved and bring back their vanished happiness.

But these reiterated operatic Orfeos are no mere repetitions. The brilliant concept underlying Philippe Jaroussky and colleagues’ La storia di Orfeo is to juxtapose parts of three different versions of the story spanning the 17th century and thus to create a new composite.

Jaroussky introduced the project a few years ago, recording it on the Warner label with Diego Fasolis and I Barocchisti. This fall, the countertenor has taken it up again (in somewhat modified form) for a North American tour. He is joined by soprano Amanda Forsythe as Eurydice and the Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Festival, led by co-directors Stephen Stubbs and Paul O’Dette*.

Their performance in Seattle last night — hosted by Seattle Symphony at Benaroya Hall — benefited from the highest level of musical values while at the same time overwhelming the audience with its emotional force. If you have a chance to catch the show’s remaining stops in Boston and the Morgan in New York, this really is one not pass it up.

Jaroussky explains that La storia di Orfeo “was conceived as a kind of opera in miniature or as a cantata” for compact forces. I found the narrative arrangement to have an immediacy and an arc that indeed seemed operatic in effect, even with the minimal (and tastefully done) semi-staging used here.

Chronologically listed, the three source Orfeos were Monteverdi’s landmark court opera from 1607 in Mantua and two later treatments by Luigi Rossi (1597-1653) and Antonio Sartorio (1630-1680) that premiered in 1647 in Paris and in 1672 in Venice, respectively.

The dramaturgical result was not a collage but followed the story’s familiar trajectory, though with different points of emphasis than we would experience from any single one of these three operas on their own. As Jaroussky notes, “Sartorio and Rossi depict the happiness of the young lovers and the scene in which Eurydice is bitten by the snake; Monteverdi, on the other hand, concentrates more on Orpheus’s search for Eurydice in the Underworld.”

An excellent essay in the program (by Jean-François Lattarico, from the album’s liner notes) elaborated on the myth’s musical-theatrical evolution in the 17th century, pointing out that the integral role of Renaissance humanism, Neo-Platonism, and poetry. It also explained the introduction of comic elements and even convoluted subplots post-Monteverdi, as well as the movement toward closed forms.

Yet for all the variety of its pastoral and dance-propelled moments, this Storia di Orfeo projected a profoundly melancholy, tragic demeanor that was further enhanced by the streamlined focus on the lovers — the opposite of the archetypal Romantic journey, building on Beethoven, from darkness to light.

Monteverdi’s “Possente spirto,” the centerpiece of his opera (Lattarico remarks that it borrows Dante’s “metrical structure” and encompasses the “three aspects of music — worldly, human, and instrumental”), also served as a fulcrum here. But there were also counterpart solos by Sartorio and Rossi following Orfeo’s second loss of Eurydice — respectively, “Chiuso, ahimè, di Cocito” and the devastating “Lasciate Averno” — that turned the program’s second half into a vast musical stele of mourning.

Jaroussky sang with heart-rending eloquence and enormous musical intelligence. His delicately weighted countertenor added a sense of vulnerability not often found in tenor Orfeos, but he fully brought out the role’s passion and despair. In one of the many paradoxes that surround this myth and its musical transformations, his intricate embellishments conveyed overpowering emotional honesty rather than florid artifice — as if these words, in this context, could be expressed only in this way.

It was illuminating to experience the iconic moments from Monteverdi’s opera in the context of the more extensive role allotted Eurydice through interpolated pieces from the other two operas, such as the exquisite “Mio ben, teco il tormento” from Rossi’s opera for Paris. Amanda Forsythe gave an equally memorable portrayal. One of the most searingly effective moments was her sudden appearance, after her death from the snakebite, as the “shade of Eurydice,” beckoning to Orpheus to brave the journey into the Underworld. Forsythe, whose voice in previous scenes conveyed the ideal “sweetness” referred to so often in the poetic texts (never cloying), brought out the grief-stricken intensity of Sartorio’s music — visibly moving her beloved and foreshadowing his own great task of moving the dark spirits of Hades.

Forsythe and Jaroussky were additionally given a number of duets, the purity of their vocal production merging into a fascinating hybrid. It’s not surprising that they have collaborated for some years now. (They’ve recorded Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice and, for Boston Early Music Festival, Agostino Steffani’s Niobe, regina di Tebe, among other works.) So it was a very smart idea to draw out their chemistry by interpolating, at the moment of the couple’s re-encounter in Hades, a scene from Steffani’s Orlando generoso in which Angelica and Ruggiero share their feelings of the absence of their respective lovers.

Along with the cast of just two singers, the ensemble for this tour involves a total of ten instrumentalists. The choral numbers that are part of the recording are dispensed with, but in their stead Stubbs and O’Dette have woven into the dramaturgy a fascinating range of contemporary instrumental interludes from across the 17th century. These serve as implicit commentaries to enhance the mood and setting.

An excerpt from a publication of Venetian sonatas “in stile moderno” by Monteverdi’s contemporary Dario Castello, for example, proved to be wonderfully evocative after Orpheus’s vibrant “Vi ricorda, o boschi ombrosi” from the Monteverdi opera. An extraordinarily dramatic sonata by Johann Rosenmüller (who fled the sex police in Leipzig and found refuge in Venice) served as a postlude to “Possente spirto.”

The ensemble played with style and dramatic presence — at times, the various strings emerged in the spotlight as extensions of Orpheus the musician, stretching the range of his lyre. On Baroque harp, Maxine Eilander’s silvery accompaniments added textural differentiation to the bowed strings so that I never felt a lack of color despite the absence of winds.

Not wishing to leave the enraptured audience in unassuaged gloom, Jaroussky, Forsythe, and the band provided a lieto fine after all by way of an encore: the final duet from Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea (“Pur ti miro”), which no one wanted to end.

Complete Program:
La storia di Orfeo: Monteverdi • Sartorio • Rossi

Antonio Sartorio: Sinfonia to L’Orfeo
Sartorio: Cara e amabile catena
Claudio Monteverdi: Rosa del Ciel – Io non dirò
Luigi Rossi: Mio ben, teco il tormento
Rossi: Che dolcezza è la certezza
Rossi: Sinfonia from L’Orfeo
Monteverdi: Vi ricorda, o boschi ombrosi
Dario Castello: Sonata 15 from Sonate concertate…in stile moderno, Libro II
Rossi: M’ami tu?
Rossi: A l’imperio d’amore
Sartorio: Ahimè, Numi, son morta – Misero, oh Dio
Rossi: Lagrime, dove sete?
Biagio Marini: Passacalio from Sonate per ogni sorte di stromento musicale
Sartorio: È morta Euridice
Sartorio: Orfeo tu dormi? – Se desti pietà – Ferma, Euridice
Monteverdi: Sinfonia
Monteverdi: Possente spirto
Johann Rosenmüller: Sonata Settima à 4 in D minor from Sonatae a 2, 3, 4 e 5
Agostino Steffani: Se t’eclisse – Vive stele from Orlando
Sartorio: Numic he veggio
Sartorio: Chiuso, ahimè, di Cocito…Rendetemi Euridice
Rossi: Lasciate Averno

Boston Early Music Festival Musicians:
Paul O’Dette, chitarrone; Stephen Stubbs, chitarrone & Baroque guitar; Robert Mealy & Julie Andrijeski, violin; Sarah Darling, viola; David Morris, violoncello & lirone; Doug Balliett, double bass; Michael Sponseller, harpsichord; Maxine Eilander, Baroque harp

(c)2019 Thomas May — All rights reserved.

Filed under: early music, Monteverdi, review, Stephen Stubbs

Living Inside the Music: Teodor Currentzis and musicAeterna

Looking ahead to his American debut at The Shed in November, my profile of Teodor Currentzis for the fall issue of Early Music America magazine is now available.

Within a few moments of listening to a performance led by Teodor Currentzis — whether live or recorded — you realize something different is unfolding. Nothing sounds taken for granted. What you assumed to be familiar parameters of a well-known piece — tempo, dynamics, accentuation — are suddenly open to question, the music propelled by a spirit of fierce collective concentration….

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Filed under: conductors, early music, Early Music America, profile

Not So Merrie Olde England: Tears of Dowland

Here’s a program essay I wrote for Boulez Saal in Berlin for this fantastic program of John Dowland, William Lawes, and John Jenkins by Laurence Dreyfus’s Ensemble Phantasm, with lutenist and theorbo player Elisabeth Kenny. Dreyfus has called Dowland’s seminal Lachrimae, or Seven Tears “one of the most sensuously tuneful hours of music ever written.”

Filed under: early music, John Dowland

Seattle Baroque Partners with Whim W’Him


Seattle Early Music is presenting a collaboration between Seattle Baroque Orchestra and Whim W’Him this weekend in a production of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater choreographed by Olivier Wevers and led by Alexander Weimann. Here’s my preview for Early Music America:

SEATTLE — It’s one of the best-loved scores in the literature — and has been so for nearly three centuries. Yet the Stabat Mater — the final work Giovanni Battista Pergolesi completed before his death in 1736 at the age of 26 — continues to allow for an extraordinary variety of interpretations. The emotional involvement and straightforward lyricism that make it so enduringly popular are precisely what have rendered Pergolesi’s setting suspect for those alarmed by such characteristics in sacred music.

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Filed under: choreography, early music

Hip To Be HIP

This was one of my favorite projects to research in 2018 — and one of many assignments that helped me to keep my sanity during a dark year.

MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Cracked Orlando Enraged Alcina (Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, mezzo-soprano) casts a curse on the love of Angelica (Sharon Harms, soprano) and Medoro (Brian Jeffers, tenor); from Jonathan Dawe’s Cracked Orlando: dramma per musica e fractals at Juilliard, 2017; photo by Nanette Melville

My story on the creative connections between early music performers and contemporary composers is the current cover story in Early Music America Magazine‘s fall 2018 issue:

When early and new music intersect, alliances are opening up a sense of fresh potential for both sides …

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Filed under: early music, new music

The Routes of Slavery Traces a Musical Journey of Resilience

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Performers in The Routes of Slavery, which comes to Seattle on Tuesday, Nov. 6. (Foundation Centre Internacional de Music Antiga)

My Seattle Times story on the upcoming Seattle performance of Jordi Savall’s The Routes of Slavery is now online:

Joined by a global array of musicians, music researcher and virtuoso Jordi Savall traces the relevant story of the African diaspora and its musical legacy across centuries and continents in The Routes of Slavery.

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Filed under: early music, Jordi Savall, Seattle Times

Hip To Be HIP

Cracked Orlando

Enraged Alcina (Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, mezzo-soprano) casts a curse on the love of Angelica (Sharon Harms, soprano) and Medoro (Brian Jeffers, tenor); from Jonathan Dawe’s Cracked Orlando: dramma per musica e fractals at Juilliard, 2017; photo by Nanette Melville

My story on the creative connections between early music performers and contemporary composers is the current cover story in Early Music America Magazine‘s fall 2018 issue:

When early and new music intersect, alliances are opening up a sense of fresh potential for both sides …

continue

Filed under: early music, feature, new music

Machaut and Marcel Pérès

This weekend, Cappella Romana is presenting performances of Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame under guest conductor Marcel Pérès, an early-music authority. Upset that I had to miss last night’s performance in Seattle. Two more follow this weekend (in Portland and Eugene, respectively).

For Cappella Romana, Marcel Pérès published this fascinating commentary on this milestone of Western music:

A far-reaching transformation took place. The mastery of numbers in the sphere of time gave men the impression that they had become something greater than mere cogs in a greater cosmic order. Thanks to the mathematical mastery of durations, music had become geometry of time.

With this new ability to conceive music outside of time, musicians began to regard themselves as creators, building structures that did not exist before their intervention in the sound material. This is probably why the 14th century gave rise to the gradual emergence of named composers.

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Filed under: Cappella Romana, early music, Machaut

Reactions to LA Master Chorale’s Lasso

img_5830The opening weekend of the new Los Angeles Master Chorale season was devoted to Orlando di Lasso’s late masterpiece Lagrime di San Pietro. I’m still working through the extraordinary effect the performance had on me — and I know I’m far from alone.

Overall, I was left with an experience I associate with late Beethoven and Parsifal. It was genuinely that special. I’m fascinated by the line of development in Peter Sellars’s work from his stagings of the Bach Passions through John Adams’s The Gospel According to the Other Mary (also with the Master Chorale) and Kaija Saariaho’s La Passion de Simone. And of course his work on Stravinsky. James F. Ingalls’s lighting design added a rich layer, yet another strand of counterpoint.

The rehearsals — a record total of 26 to bring this to the stage — were reportedly grueling: a combination of boot camp and spiritual retreat. And the incredible technical challenge of committing so much of this music along with the choreography and gestures was taken for granted. Not that this was an “effortless” performance — far from it, the strain and exhaustion entailed in bringing this music and its message to life added to the powerful impact.

Mark Swed’s review I found especially incisive:

Normally, we turn to death-invoking music for its transformative powers. The final great works of Beethoven (the late string quartets), Mozart (the unfinished Requiem) or Mahler (the Ninth Symphony’s probe of dying embers) help us transcend despair.  Di Lasso’s “Lagrime,” however, is by a deeply depressed composer in the days before meds, someone who only wants his misery to end. It did in 1594, three weeks after finishing the score.

[…]

“Lagrime” is a major accomplishment for the Master Chorale, which sang and acted brilliantly. It is also a major accomplishment for music history. The company hopes to keep this production alive, touring it, and if the music business chooses to honor the just, that will be a saint’s compensation.

Remarking on the austerity and challenge of Lagrime that make it an improbable choice for a season-opener, Richard S. Ginell gave this assessment: “[T]he Master Chorale sounded glorious — rich, accurate, seemingly unaffected by all of the physical contortions Sellars put them through, even when singing face-down on the stage muffled their voices.”

Filed under: early music, Grant Gershon, Los Angeles Master Chorale, Peter Sellars

Stile Antico’s Homage to Shakespeare

I happily recall the British early music vocal ensemble Stile Antico’s first visit to Seattle over four years ago. On 9 April they return, under the auspices of the Early Music Guild, for a program titled The Touches of Sweet Harmony:  The Musical World of William Shakespeare.

The ensemble describes their program as follows:

“To mark of the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, Stile Antico performs a mouthwatering program of Elizabethan and Jacobean music. In addition to settings of words from Shakespeare’s plays, we encounter music written for the great events of his life or which explore some of the themes of his work. Completing this fascinating picture are Shakespeare-texted works by Huw Watkins and Nico Muhly, written especially for Stile Antico.”

Filed under: early music, Shakespeare

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