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Concert reviews

Luigi Rossi: L'Orfeo, Tragicomedia per Musica in a prologue and 3 acts
Capella Figuralis
Dir: Jos van Veldhoven
concert: Utrecht, Muziekcentrum Vredenburg, April 25, 2005

Annemarieke Evers (Venere), Sara Jäggi (Giunone, Grazia II, Parca II), Anabela Marcos (Grazia I, Himeneo, Parca I, Sospetto, Vittoria), Keren Motseri (Euridice), Klaartje van Veldhoven (Amore, Bacco, Proserpina), Nicola Wemyss (Orfeo), soprano; Xenia Meijer (Grazia III, Nutrice), mezzosoprano; Barbara Kozelj (Aristeo), contralto; Daniel Lager (Apollo, Gelosia, Mercurio, Parca III), alto; Nicolas Boulanger (Caronte), Bernard Loonen (Giove, Vecchia), Immo Schröder (Momo), tenor; Wiard Witholt (Endimione), baritone; Matthew Baker (Satiro), Michiel Meijer (Plutone), Bas Ramselaar (Augure), bass
Anneke Boeke, Katherine Steddon, recorder; David Staff, Gawain Glenton, cornett; Antoinette Lohmann, Pieter Affourtit, violin; Jan Willem Vis, viola; Mieneke van der Velden, viola da gamba; Matthias Müller-Mohr, lirone; Lucia Swarts, cello; Robert Franenberg, violone; Jane Gower, dulcian; Charlie Fischer, percussion; Mike Fentross, theorbo; André Henrich, theorbo, guitar; Constance Alanic, harp; Pieter Dirksen, harpsichord, organ; Siebe Henstra, harpsichord

During the last 10 days of April the Cappella Figuralis, the soloists' ensemble of the Netherlands Bach Society, gave six performances of Luigi Rossi's opera L'Orfeo. It was part of a season which was devoted to Orpheus, the mythological singer, who has inspired so many composers, writers and visual artists through the centuries. During this season 2004/ 2005 Gluck's opera Orfeo ed Euridice was also performed, and in another concert Pergolesi's cantata Orfeo was sung as well as extracts from Telemann's opera Orpheus, oder die beständige Liebe and Haydn's L'Anima del filosofo ossia Orfeo ed Euridice. There were also exhibitions, lectures and movie presentations.

In 1641 the Roman Cardinal Antonio Barberini invited Rossi to compose an opera on a text by a friend of his. This opera, Il Palazza incantato, had great success. In France the Italian-born Cardinal Mazarin was appointed prime minister in 1643. He was a great promotor of Italian music. And since he was a friend of Cardinal Barberini, he invited Rossi to compose an opera to be performed during Carnival in 1647.
Rossi wasn't a new name to the Parisian public. In 1642 the Italian singer Leonora Baroni was invited to Paris by the Queen of France, Anne of Austria, mother of Louis XIV. As Leonora Baroni was a personal friend of Rossi's and a protégée of Cardinal Barberini, she will have performed his music during her stay in France.

In the 17th and 18th century many operas have been composed about the story of Orpheus and Euridice. But although the central subject is identical in all of them, the libretti display great variety in regard to subplots and characters. It is impossible to define what the 'authentic' story is: even in the antiquity many versions co-existed. Whereas in Monteverdi's L'Orfeo the story concentrates on the main protagonists, Orpheus and Euridice, Rossi's Orfeo contains a very important part which is absent in Monteverdi's opera: the shepherd Aristaeus [Aristeo], who is in love with Euridice, and tries to win her over, but fails. Even when Euridice is bitten by a snake, she refuses to accept Aristaeus' offer to help her.

In this opera we also find some comical elements, which were more and more becoming an integral part of 17th century opera. Here they come from Momus [Momo], the god of Slander, who comments with irony on the wedding of Orpheus and Euridice, and Aristaeus' Satyr [Satiro]. A mixture of comedy and tragedy is the fourth scene of the third act, where Aristaeus goes insane, and is ridiculised by her Satyr and Momus.

In comparison with older dramatic works Rossi's L'Orfeo consists of a large number of arias. It should be added, though, that the difference between recitative and aria isn't as strict as it would become later in history. Remarkable are also the large number of duets (6) and trios (12). The singers are only accompanied by the basso continuo. Contemporary sources report that a large orchestra was involved, but it was only used in the ritornellos and in the ballets which were added to the opera - no opera performance in France could do without them. Whereas Rossi's opera lasts a little less than 4 hours, the whole performance in 1647 should have run to about 6 hours.

Obviously there were many differences between the first performance in Paris in 1647 and that by the Cappella Figuralis in 2005. Only Rossi's music was performed, no ballets as in 1647. And even the opera wasn't complete - a number of cuts had been made. Even so, the whole performance lasted more than three hours.
There was no staging, which is understandable as the performance took place in a concert hall, and a staged performance had cost too much. The protagonists were moving around the stage, though, which enhances the interaction between the singers, but I find it a little strange to see singers move around with sheets in their hands. Another negative side-effect was that from time to time they turned towards each other while singing, which made them less well audible to the audience in front of them. It is also unhistorical, as at that time singers always turned towards the audience.

Contemporary reports speak about a 'large orchestra'. What exactly that means in the numbers of players involved is difficult to decide, but I wonder if an ensemble of the size which was on the platform in this performance can be considered 'large'. Here it took a little time before the players got into their stride, but then they played really well.

In general the characters were very well casted. Nicola Wemyss and Keren Motseri were excellent, both individually and together. Their laments ("Lagrime, dove sete" - Orfeo in III,1 and "Deh! Mira" - Euridice in II,9) were very moving as was the scene where they meet each other as Euridice is released from the underworld.
From a dramatic point of view the interpretation of the role of Aristeo by the Slovenian contralto Barbara Kozelj was brilliant. She was really frightening in her stalking of Euridice, and she also realised the scene where Aristeo meets the spirit of Euridice, who wants to drive him mad, very well. It is just a shame that stylistically speaking her performance was less convincing. There seems to be some work to do in regard to a more stylistic use of vibrato and a more flexible and 'authentic' diction of the text.
There were also good performances by Klaartje van Veldhoven and Annemarieke Evers, but Anabela Marcos was a little disappointing, in particular in the prologue where she acted as 'Vittoria' - here her voice was just not powerful enough. Bernard Loonen was hilarious as Venus disguised as an old woman (Vecchia) and Xenia Meijer was very amusing in her role as Euridice's nurse (Nutrice). The comical roles of Momo and Satiro were well sung, but the humour wasn't really brought out. I assume that is easier to realise in a full staged and acted performance, where the visual elements support the exchanges of words.

Finally two comments. It is praiseworthy that Luigi Rossi's L'Orfeo has been chosen rather than the more popular version of Monteverdi. Whereas the latter is regularly performed and also available in many recordings, Rossi's opera is seldom performed and only once recorded. It is encouraging that the performance was still well attended and received with great enthusiasm.
It is also very commendable that Jos van Veldhoven has chosen a number of relatively young and not very experienced singers, who are at the beginning of their careers. A production like this is a great experience for them, which will hopefully be to their benefit. It also made clear once again that the presence of 'big names' on the stage isn't a precondition for a good and convincing performance. It is enthusiasm and an open mind which are really counting.

Johan van Veen (© 2005)

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