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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, November 29, 2019 - Volume 47 Issue 48
Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble, Pacific MusicWorks and Seattle Symphony present a brilliant production of Orfeo ed Euridice
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Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble, Pacific MusicWorks and Seattle Symphony present a brilliant production of Orfeo ed Euridice

by Sharon Cumberland - SGN A&E Writer

ORFEO ED EURIDICE
BY CLAUDIO MONTEVERDI,
LUIGI ROSSI, AND ANTONIO SARTORIO
BOSTON EARLY MUSIC FESTIVAL
CHAMBER ENSEMBLE
PACIFIC MUSICWORKS
SEATTLE SYMPHONY
BENAROYA HALL
November 22


The Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble - co-directed by Seattle's own Stephen Stubbs of Pacific MusicWorks and including several of PMW's instrumentalists - presented the myth of Orpheus woven together from the early operas of three composers: the well-known Claudio Monteverdi, and the less-well-known Luigi Rossi and Antonio Sartorio. The idea of presenting a cantata opera as a pastiche of three composers' arias originated with Phillippe Jarousky, one of the superstar countertenors currently animating baroque operas worldwide - and inspiring the creation of new operas for their very special voices. He created it for himself, and it was a perfect vehicle for his luminous alto voice.

Benaroya Hall was very full - an audience about five times larger than a Pacific MusicWorks concert in smaller venues - which may have presented problems for those sitting at some distance from the stage. I was seated in the center of the orchestra and could hear perfectly. My opera buddy and I were impressed to see such a huge audience for a style of music that usually commands smaller groups of devoted early music lovers. I was well acquainted with Monteverdi's L'Orfeo thanks to Jordi Savall's splendid 2003 video of the opera, staged in Barcelona's Liceo Opera House. And while I was eager to hear the works of the two composers, Rossi and Sartorio, that I'd never heard before, the big attraction of the concert for me was hearing one of the most famous countertenors now singing.

Ever since I saw Jochen Kowalski perform Glück's Orfeo ed Euridice at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1991, I became aware of the wish I'd had to see the role sung by a man, in spite of the fact that great mezzos like Marilyn Horne and Risë Stevens were very convincing as Orfeo. In the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries the role of Orfeo was written for castrati - men with soprano voices - but since the late 18th century the custom of castrating choirboys to create grown men with heroically high voices declined, and, until recently, Orfeo has been sung exclusively by women. Though Alfred Deller began the countertenor revolution in the 1940s and was active into the 1970s, his falsetto lacked the full-throated power and natural sound that a female mezzo-soprano can deploy. But as other countertenors developed and followed Deller's lead, the issue for opera producers became a choice between the vocal strength of women in trouser roles or the weaker falsetto of men but with bodies that matched the male role.

A great sport among opera lovers is to choose a favorite aria and make a CD of all the examples you can find, in order to compare vocal qualities, ornamentation, orchestration, and so forth. I've put together lots of collections over the years - 18 different singers performing Handel's Largo, "Ombra mai fu," a dozen singing "I know that my Redeemer liveth," a dozen more singing Mozart's "Kyrie" from the Mass in C Minor. The last collection I put together was 12 versions of Gluck's "Che farò senza Euridice" (What will I do without Euridice?) from his 1762 opera "Orfeo ed Euridice." Gluck wasn't included in the Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble's concert last Friday because his opera was 100 years later than the period covered. But the story of Orfeo and his attempt to rescue his wife, Eurydice, from the death, is a perennial subject of opera. There are seventy works based on this myth from the beginnings of opera in the 16th century to the present. Why? Because the loss of a beloved spouse is so wrenching that a perfectly reasonable response might be to journey to the underworld, bargain with the ferryman, and face down furies to bring the loved one back to the land of the living.

In my collection of "Che farò senza Euridice" there is a version in French for tenors (because the French didn't like castrati) sung by Juan Diego Florez. Tenor Luciano Pavarotti sang it in Italian, as did baritone Dmitri Horostovsky. And while I found a couple of examples by countertenors David Daniels and Andreas Scholl from the late '90s and early 2000s I also found a bevy of fabulous mezzo-sopranos who bring Orfeo to life: Jennifer Larmore, Susan Graham, Denyce Graves, Giulietta Simionato, Anne Sofie von Otter, and (my diva) Dame Judith Baker. There's even a translation in English called "What is Life Without You?" sung by soprano Kathleen Ferrier. For over two hundred years the only way to hear Orfeo - in any of the fifty baroque operas on the Orfean myth - was to hear a woman in the role of Orfeo.

All this is changing however, with the relatively recent development of male countertenors who can make their falsetto voices sound like fully employed vocal chords. They are sounding more like their female counterparts, but how close are they to sounding like the castrati? Because they have a lower register that the castrati didn't have - and that women don't have - they will never be able to sing with their complete apparatus as women can. Yet when you listen to Phillippe Jarousky, and young phenoms like Jakub Józef Orlinksi, you have to admit they're great, and accept their admission to the roster of viable interpreters of castrato roles. Still - great countertenors are rare birds, and they won't replace women for a long time, if ever.

So it was a wonderful opportunity to see and hear a rare bird like Jarousky at work in the compilation of Orfeo arias and duets last Friday. The ensemble - including co-director Paul O'Dette on the chitarrone (theorbo) and fellow co-director Stephen Stubbs on lute and baroque guitar, with Maxine Ellander on baroque harp - supported the duo of the romantic Jarousky's Orfeo and Amanda Forsythe's beautiful and compelling Eurydice. We last saw Ms. Forsythe in PMW's "Roman Holiday," in which she portrayed a quartet of Handel's early heroines, ranging from an innocent pastoral nymph to a furious queen. She was no less lovely in voice and appearance this time. Always gorgeously garbed, she wore a damask gown of gold/silver flowers on a field of pastel blue. The chemistry between Forsythe and Jarousky was very moving - both in the joyful expressions of love expressed in the first part of the program, and in the passionate struggle with hope and lost hope in the second part.

The Orfeo story had interesting twists with the addition of the Rossi and Sartorio arias. In both Monteverdi and Glück, the most familiar versions, Eurydice takes the blame for sinking the mission. Unaware that Orfeo has been banned from looking at her until they reach daylight, she gets hysterical because Orfeo won't turn around. She decides she'd rather be dead than see light with a man who doesn't love her (as if going to the underworld to fetch her didn't signify love - but nevermind). In Sartorio's duet it's Orfeo who gets anxious that she's not following, even though she keeps reassuring him and begging him not to turn around. He - weakling - can't stand the suspense any longer and turns around. "Ah cruel man what have you done?" she cries. "Orpheus you have lost me." It was a surprise to see Euridice portrayed as the strong one of the pair, rather than the hysterical, irrational woman. Rossi's finale, in which Orfeo embraces his loss and longs for death, is equally surprising. He takes the blame for the failure of the mission and wishes for death. By this time Jarousky and Forsythe have convinced you of their devotion to one another and you feel the loss in your bones.

Fortunately, the concert had a happy ending. For an encore Jarousky and Forsythe sang the love duet "Pur ti miro, pur ti godo" from Monteverdi's 1643 L'incoronazione di Poppea - the most lovely call and response love song you ever heard. My opera buddy thought it was the best part of the whole evening - a great concert that ended on a beautiful high note, both figuratively and literally, as the two high voices - female soprano and male alto - wove their voices together in golden braid. It was a terrific concert, as the large crowd made clear in the final accolades of the evening.

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Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble, Pacific MusicWorks and Seattle Symphony present a brilliant production of Orfeo ed Euridice
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