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Four Centuries and Counting

Photo by David Thompson

It will soon be 400 years since the world’s first operatic masterpiece seduced its first spellbound audience, in an elegant room at the Gonzaga Palace in Mantua, where model centaurs pawed the ground and drew fountains of water from the built-in plumbing, and where Apollo made his descent at the end in a golden chariot. By February 1607, opera was already 7 years old, but Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo gave the audience something it hadn’t experienced before: a large and varied ensemble of instruments to orchestrate the emotional climate of the work. When, in the second act, the Messenger interrupts the happy pastoral celebrations of Orpheus’ marriage with the news that his Eurydice has died, the whole sound-image darkens to illustrate the wrenchings in Monteverdi’s harmonies; the danceries of high strings give way to gambas and a small organ, and it’s as if Monteverdi has flicked a light switch. You can really say that opera, in the true implication of its dramatic and emotional potential, was born at that moment. When you hear it again, in the superb new recording on Virgin Classics’ Veritas label, the power of that scene remains intact.

Matters of musicological accuracy aside, this new release is a splendid performance that, at least, sounds right. It is led from the harpsichord by Emmanuelle Haïm, with the small ensemble of European Voices and Le Concert d’Astrée, a wondrous group of all the right instruments — including a ferocious, gruff “regal” (a primitive organ) for the bellowing of the recalcitrant Charon, the boatman at the River Styx. Purists afflicted with perfect pitch need to be warned, however: The recording is tuned up to an “authentic” A = 465 Hz.

The Orpheus is Ian Bostridge, the marvelous, sensitive young Brit who seems currently to own the “can do no wrong” territory that laps over into art song and contemporary opera. (His Caliban in Thomas Adès’ The Tempest is a thing of high wonderment.) Particularly admirable is Bostridge’s management of the curiosities of Monteverdian ornamentation — the repeated-note trills, for example — that other singers have turned into affectations but which Bostridge makes, properly, into simple emphases of the vocal line. Alice Coote — the Ruggero in the San Francisco Opera’s Alcina a couple of seasons ago — has the Messenger’s heartbreaking lines; Natalie Dessay is the delightful La Musica in the prologue, inviting us to share in her power “to soothe all troubled hearts.” How right she is!

Bostridge is with us again in another heartstring-tearing baroque opera, Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, an Aeneas lighter in voice than we expect, which disturbs us for about six notes of his first solo and nowhere thereafter. Wherever the truth may lie in the actual history of this work — whose origin is shrouded in conflicting legend — Dido remains a one-of-a-kind piece of work. Italian opera of the sung-through variety had not gained a foothold in Purcell’s England; the episodic masquelike pieces interspersed with spoken interludes were more favored.

 

Yet here was this one intense miniature by Purcell with that old-fashioned, Monteverdian power to stop the breath and draw the tear, as the Italian master had managed seven and eight decades before.

Aeneas himself may be something of a swaggering boob; he gives in far too easily to the gods’ command to abandon his little love nest and sail on, and is equally willing to reverse his decision at the first sign of Dido’s tantrum. But Dido’s final scenes constitute one of music’s great tragedies — not only her “farewell” song but the recitative leading to it (“Thy hand, Belinda”) and the wrenching segue to the final chorus (“With drooping wings”). If you can breathe during this music, it isn’t being properly performed.

Once again the performing forces, on Virgin/Veritas, include Emmanuelle Haïm with her European Voices and Le Concert d’Astrée, and the Dido is that other do-no-wrong artist, our own Susan Graham, who has us in the aisles with her Offenbach one day and shivering with the raw tragedy of the wronged Queen Dido the next. The role is well-enough known to have become a repertory piece for a certain kind of commanding, regal singer — usually, alas, toward the later end of their careers. Kirsten Flagstad’s famous recording is a case in point, with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as her sidekick Belinda, also locked in combat with age and with the English text. Performances like this excellent new one — and others of note, including one on Harmonia Mundi by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson conducted by Nicholas McGegan — at least serve to rescue this very grand, if very small, opera from the plaything category.

 

On Virgin DVD there is more Monteverdi to treasure, his penultimate opera, The Return of Ulysses, which came to us in the Netherlands Opera’s abridged but gloriously tricky production not so many years ago. (“Return, O return,” cry we, echoing Penelope’s words from her great lament.) This one is not abridged, not tricky, and no less glorious, a production from the 2000 Aix-en-Provence Festival, created by Adrian Noble and performed by William Christie’s Les Arts Florissants, which comes to us far too seldom. (Return, O return.) Unlike L’Orfeo, Ulysses was created for a ticket-buying, not an invited aristocratic, audience; its orchestral and scenic resources were therefore modest. But Monteverdi, 30 years after L’Orfeo, had become a master of vocal expression. From the opening prologue to the final scenes, when the returned Ulysses breaks through Penelope’s 20-year ache and convinces her that he is really he, the intensity — the absolute rightness — of these musical lines holds you in their grasp. The orchestra is small: strings, a couple of winds, a nicely varied contingent of continuo instruments; the chorus numbers five. That’s all it takes for three hours of sheer delight.

I wrote some time ago, with praise bordering on ecstasy, about Peter Sellars’ production of Theodora at Glyndebourne when it was released on VHS; now it, too, is on DVD. Against the chaste authenticity of the aforementioned Monteverdi and Purcell, this release, on Kultur Video, offers a different kind of delight but a delight nevertheless. Handel’s oratorio deals with self-sacrificial love between a Christian virgin and a Roman soldier; Sellars has reset it in today’s America — simply and, if you think for a moment, convincingly. More to the point, his performers are Dawn Upshaw, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and David Daniels, with, once again, William Christie conducting. With that cast of characters, you could stage the work on a four-level freeway and it would work.

P.S. The L.A. Opera’s A Little Night Music, which opened this past weekend, is an altogether enchanting production of the work I regard as America’s most beautiful stage musical. I plan to verify these words half a dozen times, for pure pleasure, during this one-month run, and so should you. More next week.