November 08, 2007


Monteverdi: L’Orfeo. Monica Piccinini (La Musica); Furio Zanasi (Orfeo); Anna Simboli (Euridice, Proserpina); Sara Mingardo (Messaggiera, Speranza); Sergio Foreste (Caronte); Antonio Abete (Plutone); Luca Dordolo (Apollo). Concerto Italiano conducted by Rinaldo Alessandrini. Naïve. $33.99 (2 CDs).

Vivaldi: Atenaide. Sandrine Piau (Atenaide/Eudossa); Vivica Genaux (Teodosio); Guillemette Laurens (Pulcheria); Romina Basso (Varane); Nathalie Stutzman (Marziano); Paul Agnew (Leontino); Stefano Ferrari (Probo). Modo Antiquo conducted by Federico Maria Sardelli. Naïve. $33.99 (3 CDs).

      Listening to pre-Mozart operas is usually a bit of an aural strain, or at least an adjustment. Many of the operas seem more like oratorios to modern listeners, bogged down in endless and endlessly repetitive arias, formal structures that do nothing to advance the action and often seem to retard it, and a complete lack of characterization and genuine human interest. The problem is a sort of “museum-piece syndrome”: the performers interested in doing older operas tend to handle them as if they must be carefully presented so they won’t break.

      Yet not all performances of all older operas fall into this trap. Some operas burst from it through their own wit and the fascinating complexities of their plots: Handel’s Agrippina and Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea, for two examples. Other older operas escape fustiness when performed with brilliance and commitment, as L’Orfeo and Atenaide are in superb new recordings from Naïve.

      Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo of 1607 has, of course, been played quite often. It and Jacopo Peri’s Euridice (1600) are the first works generally considered to be part of the modern opera tradition – although, if we define opera simply as a story told in song, that tradition goes back thousands of years. Rinaldo Alessandrini’s performance of L’Orfeo is billed as a special limited edition, and it comes with all sorts of interesting and attractive extras: Alessandrini’s introduction to the music, the mythology underlying it, and the interpretation; a previously unpublished short story by Camille Laurens, in which the Orpheus myth is set in modern times; numerous representations of the Orpheus myth from various time periods; and a libretto that is not only complete but also annotated – by Alessandrini himself. These extras are fascinating and highly involving, but the recording of the opera itself is so good that it needs no extras at all. Alessandrini, a Monteverdi specialist (and biographer!), uses his own new performing version of the score, and manages to bring out all the beauties and passions (yes, passions) with which the opera is infused. This is no dry-as-dust performance: for Alessandrini and this cast (notably Furio Zanasi as Orfeo), this music lives. And as Alessandrini himself points out, this is an opera about music, not merely a retelling of the Orpheus myth (modified for the sensibilities of Monteverdi’s time, which had less trouble with a deus ex machina than with an unhappy ending). Four hundred years after its first performance, Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo is again – or still – very much alive, with this wonderfully sung and elegantly paced recording showing just how good the opera can sound in the right hands.

      The new recording of Atenaide is a delight for some of the same reasons and many different ones. It is the best recording ever of this opera – because it is the only one. First performed in late 1728, Atenaide is something of a pastiche: Vivaldi, an inveterate self-plagiarizer, stirred together arias and scenes he had previously written to produce a remarkably effective (if rather confusing) historical drama. But Vivaldi also wrote original music, some it quite stirring, for Atenaide, so the work – which contains quite a number of arias – includes some that are entirely new and others (such as “Nel profondo” from Orlando Furioso of 1727) that are familiar. Federico Maria Sardelli clearly understands and loves this opera, and paces it very well throughout. The cast is simply outstanding – there isn’t a weak voice in it. The plot is at once complex and commonplace: Eudossa is about to wed the Eastern Roman Emperor Teodosio when Varane, son and heir to the kingdom of Athens, shows up. Eudossa has fled to Teodosio’s court to escape the attentions of Varane, who knows her as Atenaide. Teodosio, a magnanimous ruler (think of Titus in Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito), tells Atenaide/Eudossa that she may choose whom to wed by giving the one she loves a precious jewel that he provides. Atenaide/Eudossa decides on Teodosio, but does not give the jewel to him directly: she gives it to a scheming servant, Probo, who for reasons of his own presents it to Varane. Confusion and a kidnapping ensue, but Probo’s machinations are eventually exposed and Atenaide/Eudossa is united with Teodosio. The plots and counterplots probably play better on stage than in a recording, where it can be a bit difficult – even with a libretto – to keep track of who is doing what to whom at what time. But it doesn’t really matter: what makes this virtually unknown opera soar is the intricacies of the music. All the singers are experienced in Vivaldi’s style, all are in fine vocal form, and conductor Sardelli knows just how to keep voices and instruments in balance at all times. The recording, interestingly, was made in Florence, Italy, in the Teatro della Pergola – the same location where Atenaide was first performed. But that is history. This recording is very much of the here and now: beautifully sung, excellently played and every bit as alive as any of Vivaldi’s more familiar music.

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