Monteverdi: Selva morale e spirituale
Les Arts Florissants, William Christie
Barbican, 9 December 2017
Monteverdi’s 8th book of madrigals, the Selva morale e spirituale (Moral and Spiritual Forest”), was published in 1641 when Monteverdi was in his 70s. It seems to have been intended as a culmination of his musical career at St Marks Venice, and contains a vast array of compositional styles, as reflected in this Barbican concert by the eight singers and eight instrumentalists of Les Arts Florissants. They opened with one of the most dramatic pieces from the collection, the extended seven-voice Gloria, the clear articulation of the singers allowing the flourishes of the musical lines to shine. Here, as in many of the other pieces, the two violinists made significant contributions. Continue reading
House of Monteverdi
Spitalfields Music Festival 2017
St Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch
2 December 2017
Things have changed at Spitalfields Music, as the opening night of their annual Winter Festival demonstrated. They have traditionally concentrated on early and contemporary music and, to a certain extent, continue that focus, although the target audience now seems very different from previous years. For the first of their new-style Winter festivals, they have bought in an Artistic Curator, André de Ridder, a conductor who crosses musical borders, not least in his involvement with electronic and pop music. His concept was for a festival made up of a series of ‘mini-festivals’, combining different genres and musicians. The focus is on much younger composers and performers that hitherto. The opening mini-festival, House of Monteverdi, was a 4½ hour marathon featuring four featured young composers, together with the four members of the Hermes Experiment, who jointly composed one of their pieces. The four world premieres and two UK premieres were contrasted and alternated with (and were sometimes influenced by), extracts from Monteverdi’s Eighth Book of Madrigals – the Songs of Love and War. Continue reading
Baroque Voices at The Music Room
Rachel Ambrose Evans, Joy Smith
The Music Room, 26 October 2017
One of the most rewarding aspects of this reviewing lark has been spotting talented young musicians in the early stages of their musical careers. There are several well-known singers who I first noticed singing in choirs, and many instrumentalists who I first heard in their student days. One such singer is the soprano Rachel Ambrose Evans, who I first noticed after a tiny step-out-from-the-choir role in a Proms concert and, shortly afterwards, as a chorus fairy in a production of the Fairy Queen, noticing on both occasions what I consider to be an ideal ‘early music’ voice. That early music voice was very apparent in Rachel’s concert with harpist Joy Smith in The Music Room, hidden away above an antique emporium close to London’s Oxford Street, and until now used as an exhibition and events space. It was part of a new series of lunchtime concerts. Continue reading
Monteverdi: Vespro della Beata Vergine
Dunedin Consort, His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts, John Butt
Linn Records. CKD 569. 2CDs 94′
During this 450th anniversary year of Monteverdi’s birth, there have been a plethora of performances and recordings of his 1610 Vespro della Beata Vergine. It’s not an easy work to address, not least because of the many complex musicological and performance issues that surround it.
The first point of call for anybody remotely interested in such things is to read the programme notes. The second is to glance at the track list. If it has more than 12 separate items, then it is probably placed in a quasi-liturgical, and almost certainly spurious, setting, with additional plainchant and instrumental pieces intended to represent how it might if it were performed liturgical. But it is most unlikely ever to have been thus performed. Scholarship changes almost daily, but it seems likely that this is Monteverdi showing what he is capable of, exploring differing style of music on the cusp of the transition from the Renaissance to the Baroque (the prima pratica to the seconda praticca), and possibly (rather like Bach’s B Minor Mass) as a calling card; in Monteverdi’s case, for potential posts in Venice and Rome. Continue reading
Innsbrucker Festwochen der Alten Musik
Innsbruck, 21-23 August 2017
The Innsbruck Festival of Early Music runs annually for about three weeks during August. It was founded in 1976 and since the start has focussed on Baroque opera, in recent years usually performing three each season. Between 1991 and 2009 René Jacobs was the director of the opera programme and, from 1997, the entire festival. Since 2010 the festival has been directed by Alessandro De Marchi, who instigated the International Singing Competition for Baroque Opera Pietro Antonio Cesti, named after Antonio Cesti, a 17th-century Italian singer and composer who served at the Innsbruck court of Archduke Ferdinand Charles of Austria. The focus this year was on the music of Monteverdi, and included a staged performance of Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria. Unfortunately, I was only able to attend for three days, so my review is necessarily limited in scope. Continue reading
Festival de Saintes
Abbaye aux Dames: la cité musicale, Saintes
14-22 July 2017
The Abbaye aux Dames was founded in 1047 by the Count of Anjou as a Benedictine abbey for women, usually of aristocratic origin. Around 1120, the Abbey church was altered and the spectacularly carved west end facade and bell tower were added. Internally, the Romanesque triple-aisled basilica was altered, rather inelegantly, by inserting two enormous domed cupolas into the original external walls, resulting in a bit of an architectural mess. After two major fires in the 17th century (which destroyed the cupolas), the church was restored, and impressive new convent buildings were added, with cells for 45 nuns. During the Revolution, the Abbey first became a prison (1792), and then a barracks (1808). In the 1920s, the Abbey complex was purchased by the town of Saintes. In the 1970s, restoration of the monastic buildings (abandoned since the war) was started and, in 1972, an annual Festival of Ancient Music was created, later becoming the Festival de Saintes. In 1988 the Abbey was launched as a cultural centre by President François Mitterrand, and in 2013 it became la cité musicale, housing a Conservatoire of Music and a range of year-round musical activities, including many for young people. The former nun’s cells now sleep visitors and guests of the Festival.
Monteverdi: Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria
The Grange, Northington, Hampshire. 18 June 2017
The Grange, in Northington, Hampshire, achieved it current form in the early 19th century, when the architect William Wilkins (later to design the National Gallery) encased a 17th century house in grand Greek revival style. Further work by Robert Smirke, architect of the British Museum, and Charles Robert Cockerell completed the scheme. It came to public notice in 1975 when the owners, a junior branch of the Baring banking family, attempted to demolish the building. The exterior was listed by the Government, on account of its appearance and landscape importance, and placed into the guardianship of English Heritage, who instigated major restoration of the exterior of the building and opened the site to the public. It reached much wider appreciation in 1998 when the new Grange Park Opera took a 20 year lease from the Baring landlords, and started a summer opera season. In 2002 they built an award-winning new opera house within the shell of the old orangery, investing several million pounds in the project. They also did a considerable amount of work inside the shell of the building, including reinstating the dramatic staircase (pictured below). Disagreements with the Baring family led to Grange Park Opera decamping to a new home at the Theatre in the Woods at West Horsley Place, Surrey, not surprisingly taking many of the internal fittings from their Grange opera house with them. Continue reading
Les Talens Lyriques
St John’s, Smith Square. 7 June 2017
This concert celebrated the 450th anniversary of Monteverdi’s birth, as well as the 25th anniversary of Les Talens Lyriques. Tenors Emiliano Gonzalez Toro and Anders J. Dahlin joined with director and keyboard player Christophe Rousset, cellist Emmanuel Jacques, and violinists Gilone Gaubert-Jacques and Josépha Jégard to explore Monteverdi’s more intimate, but nonetheless dramatic music. Each half concluded with opera extracts, but started with extracts from four of Monteverdi’s madrigal books. Throughout these madrigals, we had to work around the curious implications of two men both singing about the same love interest. Continue reading
Monteverdi: The Other Vespers
I Fagiolini, The English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble, The 24, Robert Hollingworth
Decca 4831654. 80’23
During this 450th Monteverdi anniversary year there will be many performances and recordings of the 1610 Vespers. But for this ‘not the 1610’ recording, I Fagiolini have reconstructed a Vespers service inspired by a Dutch tourist’s 1620 record of hearing Monteverdi direct a Vespers on the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist. The psalms and the plainchant on this recording are from that feast, using music by Monteverdi and his contemporaries. The Monteverdi contribution comes from his Selva morale e spirituale, published in 1641, but containing music written much earlier. Whereas the 1610 Vespers are intended for feasts of the Virgin or other female saints, the 1641 collection contains psalms for feasts of male saints. Continue reading
‘Baroque at the Edge: pushing the boundaries’
London Festival of Baroque Music
St John’s, Smith Square & Westminster Abbey
12-20 May 2017
After reforming, renaming, and regrowing itself from the long-running Lufthansa Festival, the London Festival of Baroque Music has become, phoenix-like, one of the most important early music festivals in London. Under the banner of ‘Baroque at the Edge: pushing the boundaries‘, this year’s LFBM used the music of Monteverdi and Telemann, from either end of the Baroque (and both with anniversaries this year) to explore ‘some of the chronological, geographical and stylistic peripheries of Baroque Music’. With one exception, all the concerts were held in the Baroque splendour of St John’s, Smith Square. Continue reading
Hampstead Garden Opera, Musica Poetica
Jacksons Lane Theatre, HIghgate. 13 May 2017
The 450th anniversary of Monteverdi’s birth will include many performances of L’incoronazione di Poppea. It was his last known opera, first performed just months before his death. But I think this one, by the young singers and instrumentalists of Hampstead Garden Opera and Musica Poetica, will prove to be one of the most memorable for me. An impressively simple staging, excellent singing and acting, and an exceptionally well judged realisation of the instrumental accompaniments, combined with the friendly acoustic of the Jacksons Lane Theatre to produce an absorbing and thought-provoking interpretation of Monteverdi’s exploration of love, lust, and power. Continue reading
Early Music Festival
27 February – 4 March 2017
Müpa Budapest is the sensibly shortened title of Művészetek Palotája, the national cultural centre situated on the Danube just south of the centre of the Pest side of Budapest. The building opened in 2005 (as the Palace of the Arts), and was designed by the young Hungarian architects Zoboki, Demeter and Partners. It includes the Béla Bartók National Concert Hall (Bartók Béla Nemzeti Hangversenyterem), the Festival Theatre (Fesztivál Színház), also suitable for smaller scale concerts, several other performing spaces and an outpost of the Ludwig Museum, best known for its Vienna contemporary art gallery. The centre hosts an enormous range of activities throughout the year and, for the past three years, has been running a short early music festival, this year consisting of six events. I was invited to review five of them, between 27 February to 4 March, featuring performers based in Italy, Austria, Germany, Switzerland and Budapest.
Hasse: Piramo e Tisbe
Europa Galante, Fabio Biondi
Müpa: Festival Theatre , 27 February 2017
The first event took place in the Festival Theatre (Fesztivál Színház). Designed for speech and drama, it also proved very effective as a small scale music performance space, seating around 460. A substantial acoustic screen (pictured) is used to reduce the size of the large theatrical stage, focussing the sound of musicians and helping to project the sound to the audience. The acoustics are clear, with sufficient reverberation to create an effective music listening environment. Continue reading
l’Arte del Madrigale
Ambronay Edition AMY308. 62’36
Music by Giaches de Wert, Agostini, Luzzaschi, Gastoldi, de Rore, Gesualdo, Monteverdi, Marenzio, Piccinini, Gonzaga.
Since 2013, Seconda Pratica has been involved with the Eemerging project (Emerging European Ensembles, part of the Creative Europe programme), a scheme that assists young early music ensembles. This recording is a part of their third year of support from Eemerging and the Ambronay European Baroque Academy. Like so many early music performers, Voces Suaves grew out of studies at that powerhouse of early music, the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis in Basle. It was founded in 2012 with 9 singers. The music features some of the perhaps lesser-known madrigal composers of the Renaissance, notably from the repertoire amongst the extraordinary artistic heritage the Este and Gonzaga courts in Ferrara and Mantua and in Florence. Continue reading
Love & Lust
Elizabeth Hungerford, soprano, Andrew Arceci, viola da gamba
No record label noted. Ref: 8 89211 78745. 56’42
All in a Garden Green (Anonymous – 16th century)
She Loves It Well (Tobias Hume – 1579-1645)
Chi passa per ‘sta strada (Filippo Azzaiolo – 1530/40-1569)
Touch Me Lightly (Tobias Hume – 1579-1645)
Amarilli mia bella (Giulio Romolo Caccini – 1551-1618)
Amarilli Variations (Modo 2, 3, And 4) (Jacob Van Eyck- 1590-1657)
Joy to the Person of My Love (Anonymous – 17th century)
Canzonetta Spirituale sopra alla nanna (Tarquinio Merula – 1594/95-1665)
Death (Tobias Hume – 1579-1645)
Life (Tobias Hume – 1579-1645)
Prelude (E Minor) – (Christopher Simpson – 1602/06-1669)
I Attempt from Love’s Sickness (Henry Purcell – 1659-1695)
Beauty, Since You so Much Desire (Thomas Campion – 1567-1620)
Tobacco (Tobias Hume – 1579-1645)
1Quel sguardo sdegnosetto (Claudio Monteverdi – 1567-1643)
This CD was recorded in 2013 and appears to have been available as a download, but was issued as a CD in 2014 or 15. It appears to be self-produced, as there is no record label mentioned, although the bar code number listed above is searchable. The CD liner notes give translations of the texts, but not strictly in the order of the tracks. No track or total timings are given, which might limit its use for broadcasters. There is a brief note about the two performers, but no other information about the programme or the background to the pieces. But there is a full page listing of some 150 people who “the artists wish to thank” – presumably the result of a crowdfunding campaign.
All that merely reflects that performers have to start somewhere, and self-producing and self-promoting is pretty much standard nowadays. What is important is what you get if you can get hold of this CD. And that is a far more professional offering Continue reading
English Touring Opera: three 17th-century ‘Venetian’ operas
Handel Xerxes, Cavalli La Calisto, Monteverdi ‘Ulysses’ Homecoming’
English Touring Opera
Hackney Empire. 8, 14, 15 October 2016
English Touring Opera (ETO) has built a solid reputation for their two annual opera tours around England. In their most recent season, they visited 91 venues, with two groups of fully-staged operas (sung in English) plus various wider educational and community projects. It is a remarkable organisational undertaking and a tough call for the singers in each tour, with many singing in two operas and covering a role in the third. Usually touring two or three operas in the spring and autumn, they open with one-off autumnal London showings before hitting the road. Their choice of operas usually has a theme, or is otherwise related in style and period. This year’s autumn focus is on early operas written in, or inspired by, Venice, with Handel’s 1738 Xerxes, Cavailli’s 1651 La Calisto, and Monteverdi’s 1639 “Ulysses’ Homecoming” (Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria), performed in reverse order to the dates of composition, and premièring in the magnificent surroundings of the Edwardian Hackney Empire. Continue reading
Antonio Bertali: La Maddalena
Scherzi Musicali, Nicolas Achten
Ricercar RIC367. 67’42
Monteverdi, Guivizzani, Effrem, Rossi: Music composed for La Maddalena, a sacred drama by Gio. Battista Andreini; Bertali: La Maddalena; Mazzocchi: Lagrime Amare
The music of Antonio Bertali deserves to be much better known, and this important recording demonstrates why. His oratorio La Maddalena was composed in Vienna in 1663. It is richly scored for six solo singers, a six-part viol consort, two cornetts, a violin and trombone plus continuo, here drawn from lirone, violone, theorbo, archlute, guitar, chitarrones, tiorbino, harp, and a variety of keyboard instruments.
Its three parts start with a dialogue between Pentimento and Amor verso Dio (Repentance and Love for God), sung by a low bass and high tenor respectively, and reflecting on the death of Christ. The sombre mood is lifted somewhat in the second part, when the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene contemplate their position, their moods changing dramatically from lamentation to some indications of hope for the future. The final part features two sinners (Peccatore), who meet up with Maria and Maddalena to compare notes. The rich orchestration of cornets Continue reading
Spitalfields Music: 40th Summer Festival
Spitalfields Music has been an extraordinary musical and community success since its foundation 40 years ago. Starting life with a 1966 concert to help save Nicholas Hawksmoor’s architecturally important Christ Church Spitalfields (which was then, unbelievably, under threat of demolition) it soon grew into a ‘Summer Festival of Music’ led by Richard Hickox. Initially under the auspices of the Friends of Christ Church, it became an independent organisation and charity in 1989, setting up their continuing community and education programme two years later. Under the artistic and managerial leadership of the likes of Judith Serota, Michael Berkely, Judith Weir, Jonathan Dove, Diana Burrel, Abigail Pogson and the current Chief Executive, Eleanor Gussman, it has grown into an major musical and community force in London, sharing their passion for music with nearly half and million people, attracting more than 325,000 audience members to events in more than 70 venues in the Spitalfields and Tower Hamlets area. Alongside their Summer and Winter Festivals, they run an enormous Learning & Participation programme involved more than 125,000 people.
They have traditionally focussed on early and contemporary music, commissioning many new works from present day composers to create Continue reading
Monteverdi: Messa a Quattro voci – Vol 1.
Coro COR16142. 71’29
Monteverdi: Dixit Dominus (Primo), Confitebor tibi Domine (Secondo), Lauda Jerusalem; Cavalli: Magnificat; Monteverdi: Laetatus sum, Nisi Dominus, Laudate pueri, Laetaniae della Beata Vergine, Beatus vir.
In the last two years of his life, Monteverdi collected a substantial amount of his music for publication (the Madrigali guerrieri et amorisi, 1638, and Salve morale et spirituale, 1641), reflecting his musical output over the previous decades. After his death, one of his publishers had the good sense, or the commercial sense, to put together some unpublished manuscripts to form the 1650 Messa a 4 v. et salmi a 1–8 v. e parte da cappella & con le litanie della B.V. This is the first of two CDs from The Sixteen of music from this posthumous collection: the Mass setting of the title will be on the second volume. This CD includes a selection of liturgical pieces, but not in any specific liturgical context, with several Vespers Psalms, a Litany to the Virgin Mary and a Magnificat by Cavalli who probably assisted in the preparation of the publication. Continue reading
Monteverdi: The Other Vespers
Choir and Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment, Robert Howarth
Kings Place, 15 January 2016
Music by Monteverdi, Grandi, and Cavalli
The 2016 Kings Place ‘Baroque Unwrapped’ season will include some 45 concerts in a variety of formats. Opening the season in grand style were the Choir and Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment in a spectacular programme of music from the very start of the Baroque era by Monteverdi, Grandi and Cavalli. “This is not the 1610 Vespers” warned conductor Robert Howarth at the start. Although retaining the structure of a Vespers service, the music was drawn from Monteverdi’s 1640/41 Selva morale e spirituale and the posthumous Messa e salmi of 1650.
The Vespers opened with the traditional Deus and Response, in the jubilant fanfare-like version written by Alessandro Grandi. Continue reading
Monteverdi: Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria
Academy of Ancient Music, Richard Egarr
Barbican, 29 September 2015
The Academy of Ancient Music completed their trilogy of Barbican performances of Monteverdi operas with Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria in what was build as a ‘concert hall staging’, but was as close to a fully-staged opera as you could get without props or scenery. Rather like the recent Monteverdi Choir / London Baroque Soloists production of Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice at the Royal Opera House, the stage depth was divided into three parts, with the instrumentalists occupying the centre ground. The Gods spent most of their time on the higher level behind the orchestra, with mortals at the front of the stage. Both had forays into the audience, accompanied by rather overdone spotlights brightly illuminating those of the audience sitting near the aisles. Continue reading
Proms: Monteverdi Orfeo
Monteverdi Choir & English Baroque Soloists
Royal Albert Hall. 4 August 2015
For the second time this year, London sees Monteverdi’s Orfeo performed in a large circular space. After the Royal Opera House / Early Opera Company production in the Roundhouse early this year (review here) we now had the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists in the vast space of the Royal Albert Hall in front of a packed audience of well over 5000 people.
For a work that was probably first performed in a space that in its entirety (including performers and audience) would have fitted onto the front part of the RAH stage, there are obvious issues of presentation. For this rather more than semi-staged performance, John Eliot Gardiner placed his 32 instrumentalist right and left of a central triangular area, the continuo group divided between the two sides with harpsichords and organ at the front of the two sides and pairs of chittarones on either side. The strings were to the left, the woodwind to the right, with the cornetts/trumpets and sackbuts on the top of the stage steps, just below the bust of Sir Henry Wood. The soloists were drawn from the 4o-strong choir, which tumbled onto the stage during the Toccata led by a jovial chap who looked as though he had been given a frame drum for Christmas, but hadn’t got round to reading the instruction manual, consequently beating it mercilessly with his fist. The youthful chorus of Nymphs and Shepherds (men in casual black, women in bright block colours) bounced around to the merciless thump of the drum and rattle of a tambourine. The two very professional-looking dancers who took over the front stage turned out to be the key soloists Mariana Flores and Francesca Aspromonte (Eurydice and Musica who, in a nice twist, also sang the role of the Messenger). Continue reading
Monteverdi Vespers of 1610
Orchestra & Choir of the Age of Enlightenment, Robert Howarth (Director)
City of London Festival. St Paul’s Cathedral. 2 July 2015
There are many ways of performing Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers, and conductor Robert Howarth’s interpretation with the Choir and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment must count as one of the finest; not just in the technical decisions (which are complex) but in the sheer magnificence of the performance itself. St Paul’s Cathedral is not an easy space to sing into, but the 23 singers of the OAE showed exactly how to do it. It was interesting comparing them to the 106 singers of LSO chorus in last week’s performance of the Haydn Creation, the OAE soloists and chorus producing a far clearer and more focussed sound. Continue reading
‘Women in Baroque Music’
St John’s, Smith Square & Westminster Abbey, 18/19 May 2015
I couldn’t get to the lunchtime concert on day 3 of the festival, but it was given by soprano Rowan Pierce and the young group Medici, under the title of ‘Future Baroque’, with music by Handel, Bach, Royer, Telemann, Corelli and Vivaldi. Unless I have missed something, this was another event that seemed to bypass the festival’s theme, although it did include as its final work Agitata da due venti, a surviving fragment from Vivaldi’s opera L’Adelaide and later also included in his Griselda, composed for the virtuoso soprano Margherite Giacomazzi.
‘Leçons des ténèbres’
Julia Doyle & Grace Davidson, sopranos,
Jonathan Manson, bass viol, Steven Devine, harpsichord, organ & director
The Monday evening concert (St John’s, Smith Square, 18 May) Continue reading
Monteverdi – Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria
Boston Baroque, Martin Pearlman (conductor)
Linn CKD451. 3 CDs. 176’
Monteverdi’s 1640 Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria is not as well-known as his Orfeo (1607) or L’incoronazione di Poppea (1643), partly because of the difficulties in preparing a performing edition from the rather scant surviving evidence. For this recording, made in the studio shortly after a semi-staged production in Boston in April 2014, Boston Baroque’s director, Martin Pearlman, uses his own relatively conservative edition. As well as the orchestral ritornellos Pearlman has added a few orchestral colourings (using strings, cornetts and recorders) to the continuo line (of two theorbos, guitar, cello, two harpsichords, organ and an attractively buzzy regal). The use of instruments such as the cello (a later development from the bass instruments of Monteverdi’s time) suggests a certain relaxing of strict instrumental authenticity, but this does not detract from an otherwise impression edition. There is a nice balance between the over-orchestrations of yesteryear and severely austere continuo-only interpretations. Indeed, one of the highlights is Pearlman’s use of the various instrumental colours, with particularly effective contributions being made by the continuo theorbo players. Continue reading
One of the posh frocks and picnic venues that combine musical excellence with spectacular gardens is Iford Manor, near Bath. This year’s early music offering was Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria performed by the Early Opera Company (2 Aug 2014) in a setting that could not be more Italian. Iford’s Peto Garden is full of Italian references, and the operas take place inside a pastiche 100 year-old Italian cloister – one of the most intimate opera spaces I know.
The 12-strong (and vocally strong) cast was headed by mezzo Rowan Hellier as the complex and emotional confused Penelope with Jonathan McGovern as the returning Ulysses. Penelope’s three suitors were Callum Thorpe, Russell Harcourt and Alexander Robin Baker, with Oliver Mercer as their advocate Eurymachus. Elizabeth Cragg and Annie Gill made fine contributions as Minerva and Melanto, as did Daniel Auchincloss as Eumaeus, here portrayed as a gamekeeper. The Prologue was sensibly omitted, allowing the opening focus to be on Penelope’s grief.
The audience sit within a few feet of the central stage and it is impossible not to feel personally involved in the unfolding drama. It is a real test of the singers’ sense of character and voice to be able to project to such a close audience. Justin Way directed, using Christopher Cowell’s sensible ENO English translation, and an excellent and beautifully lit staging by Kimm Kovac, using imaginative and vaguely modern dress with a hint of the abdication era. Christian Curnyn directed his seven Early Opera Company players from the harpsichord, the violins of Catherine Martin and Oliver Webber being much in evidence.
Such is the profile and schedule of The Sixteen that I was surprised to find that their short tour of the Monteverdi Vespers was the first time they had toured with orchestra and choir together. Of their eight venues (six cathedrals, and two concert halls), I saw them in Guildford Cathedral (on 30 Jan), a pared-down Gothic building designed in the 1930s and finally opened in 1961. The acoustics are good, at least from my seat close to the performers, who were positioned in what would have been termed ‘the crossing’ (in front of the choir and chancel) if there had been proper transepts. Very professional looking TV cameras broadcast to monitors to the sell-out audience down the long nave. The sequence of movements was what has become the traditional one, as were several other aspects of the performance including, arguably, taking the sequialtera passages too fast. The (more substantial) Magnificat was sung at higher pitch. With 20 singers and 24 instrumentalists, this was an aurally powerful performance, although the tiny box organ was only occasionally audible. The use of such organs is common in the UK although I urge you to try and hear the Vespers (and any Bach cantatas, for that matter) performed with a church organ (for example, see my review of the Cantar Lontano recording in the October 2014 Early Music Review). The rest of the continuo group was cello, violone, chitarrone, harp and dulcian, with string/recorders and cornett/sackbuts divided left and right. The vocal soloists, all stepping forward from the choir, were sopranos Grace Davidson and Charlotte Mobbs, tenors Mark Dobell and Jeremy Budd and basses Ben Davies and Eamonn Dougan – all most impressive. Relatively limited use was made of the available space, the main exception being the tenor/theorbo duet Nigra Sum which was performed from halfway down the central aisle, and Jeremy Budd singing Audi coelum from the pulpit. The echo passages were sung from somewhere towards the altar. As with their other cathedral venues, the singers in the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria were the local cathedral choristers, in this case Guildford’s very able girls choir.
The Roundhouse is the latest of the Royal Opera House’s ventures away from Covent Garden, another being the Sam Wanamaker playhouse at The Globe. The circular building (a former engine shed in North London, and one of my haunts in earlier rock concert days) made an impressive, if acoustical tricky, venue for Monteverdi’s Orfeo. The audience sit in a 270° arc around the off-centre circular stage with the instrumentalists of the Early Opera Company at the back of the stage.
The Prologue opened with a young and rather sour looking Pluto and his entourage processing down a long sloping gangway onto the stage and up to a raised dais above the orchestra and what turned out to be the entrance to Hades. The gods were accompanied by be-robed priests who turned out to be the three Pastore (billed as ‘Pastors’ – very droll). It had the air of a court house, with the gods sitting in judgement as the scene unfolded below. Musica (who turns into Euridice via an on-stage costume change) sat with Orfeo draped pieta-like across her lap, a touching scene reversed at the end of the evening.The only prop was a simple chair, with the other scenes created by a lively group of 14 child dancers and acrobats (from East London Dance) who created arches through which the protagonists moved, as well as the ripples of the Styx.
This was the first attempt at opera direction by the Royal Shakespeare Company’s former Artistic Director, Michael Boyd, and he sensibly resisted the temptation to overly embellish the plot. The sparse setting allowed the focus to be on the music itself, something that the young singers rose to with considerable aplomb. The Transylvanian baritone, Gyula Orendt was a most impressive Orfeo, the clarity of his voice overcoming some slight pronunciation difficulties and the curious spectacle of him being hoisted precariously into the air at the end. Mary Bevan was outstanding as Euridice and Musica, both with her acting and the beauty of her voice. The other members of the cast were of a similar high standard, including the chorus drawn from Guildhall students. However, I was not convinced about casting Susan Bickley as the Messenger. The playing of the Early Opera Company and Christopher Moulds’ musical direction was spot on. There is more I could write about some of the production issues, but will certainly remember this as a fine musical event.