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I Fagiolini and The English Cornett & Sackbutt Ensemble at the St John’s Smith Square
20 May 2017

I Fagiolini's Orfeo: London Festival of Baroque Music

This year’s London Festival of Baroque Music is titled Baroque at the Edge and celebrates Monteverdi’s 450th birthday and the 250th anniversary of Telemann’s death. Monteverdi and Telemann do in some ways represent the ‘edges’ of the Baroque, their music signalling a transition from Renaissance to Baroque and from Baroque to Classical respectively, though as this performance of Monteverdi’s Orfeo by I Fagiolini and The English Cornett & Sackbutt Ensemble confirmed such boundaries are blurred and frequently broken.

I Fagiolini and The English Cornett & Sackbutt Ensemble at the St John’s Smith Square

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: I Fagiolini

Photo credit: Russell Gilmour


Orfeo, first performed in 1607 at the Gonzaga court in Mantua is, in formal and stylistic terms, derived from earlier models: the madrigal, balletta, the intermedi, the pastoral tradition. But, it is also one of the boldest experiments: a favola in musica (a play in music) lasting 90 minutes, its units bound together by repeating ritornelli - an extraordinary conception in its day.

Robert Hollingworth directed a performance which urged us to remember what a thrilling occasion the first performance of Orfeo - in the Sala Nuova, 30 metres long and 7 metres wide, of the Gonzagas’ ducal palace in Mantua - must have been. But, his players and singers also made us aware of the musical roots of the opera, commencing the performance with a madrigal, a reminder of the aesthetics of the seconda prattica style - with its emphasis on melody over harmony, and the union of word and tone - from which opera sprung.

At first, I wondered at the appropriateness of adding a ‘preface’ to the ceremonial toccata with which the opera begins, but as the performance continued I appreciated the way the opening madrigal served to reinforce the lack of stylistic division between genres, as elements of the madrigal idiom appeared in the declamatory arioso, in the recitative and in the more discrete formal dances and songs. The latter, in which the voices came together in ensemble or chorus, were vivid portraits of joy and despair: the Act 1 balletta ‘Lasciate i monti’ skipped in pastoral sunshine, while the chorus of lamentation which closes Act 2 was weighted with despondent gloom.

The introductory toccata itself, a gloriously rich explosion of brass, immediately translated us to a world of courtly decorum and majesty. As the musicians took their seats - some in front of the stage, some behind and raised, replicating the placement which made the instrumentalists visible at the first performance - the singers processed in. Hollingworth, who had joined the madrigalists at the start, now took his position behind the organ, and it did not seem fanciful to envisage the hierarchically arranged horse-shoe configuration of the original audience, with the Duke elevated on a balustraded dais. The historical echoes must have been even more resonant when Tom Guthrie’s semi-staged production was first performed by these artists in 2015, in a ‘private’ performance for Martin Randall Travel in the scuola of San Giovanni Battista, Venice.

However, I’m not sure if simply having singers enter from the rear, or sing from the gallery, or assume a variety of positions on the platform really produces a performance which can be genuinely be described as ‘semi-staged’? I may be being unfair to Guthrie, though, for St John’s does not afford much opportunity for adventurous staging and the sight-lines are not good (so it wasn’t a good idea for La Musica to begin the Prologue seated on the floor, removed from view).

Monteverdi employs a large orchestra and the playing of I Fagiolini and The English Cornett & Sackbutt Ensemble was stylish and incredibly accomplished. Whether it was the piquant descant recorders colouring the repeating Act 1 balletta with squeals of delight; the rhapsodic theorbo of Eligio Quinteiro underscoring the emotions of the text; the fleet, feathery decorative echoes of violinists Bojan Čičič and Jorge Jimenez in Orfeo’s impassioned plea ‘Possente spirto’; or the blazing richness of the cornetts allied with the warm blend of sackbuts singing in consort, the instrumental playing was an integral element in the drama - commenting, reflecting, building tension, celebrating.

In the title role, Matthew Long wonderfully illustrated the rhetorical eloquence of Monteverdi’s ‘musical speech’. Initially I wondered if his tenor would acquire sufficient range of colour to convey the music’s emotional diversity, but in ‘Possente spirto’ he probed every word for nuance and shade, showing sensitive appreciation for the mannerist aesthetic in which the style takes the text as the point of departure. Long treated the declamatory rhythms with just the right touch of flexibility, the slightest looseness deepening the expressive gestures of the vocal melody. The way in which Long gradually opened Orfeo’s heart to the listener, creating ever more heart-tugging empathy, was very impressive. Rachel Ambrose-Evans sang with a clear, attractive tone, but her Euridice was less strongly defined dramatically.

I noted the vivacity of baritone Greg Skidmore’s response to situation and text when reviewing a recent concert by Ex Cathedra , and here, once again, Skidmore had considerable stage presence, distinguishing effectively between the Infernal Spirit and the Shepherd. Christopher Adams’ Carone plumbed cavernous depths complemented by the dark-toned trombones, while Charles Gibbs was a regal Pluto, patently enjoying the affectionate attentions of Clare Wilkinson’s expressive, elegant Proserpina.

Hollingworth was intensely involved in all aspects of the musical drama, moving from the organ to join a madrigal or chorus, returning to the keyboard to supplement the musical mood with a percussive adornment. He epitomised the relaxed flow of the performance as a whole, further emphasising the astonishing formal synthesis of Monteverdi’s innovative and marvellous opera.

Claire Seymour

Monteverdi: Orfeo
I Fagiolini/The English Cornett & Sackbutt Ensemble
Robert Hollingworth (organ & director)
Thomas Guthrie (stage director)

Orfeo - Matthew Long, Euridice - Rachel Ambrose-Evans, Messenger/Silvia - Ciara Hendrick, Ninfa/Proserpina - Clare Wilkinson, Speranza/Shepherd - William Purefoy, Apollo/Shepherd - Nicholas Hurndall Smith, Caronte - Christopher Adams, Plutone/Shepherd - Charles Gibbs, Shepherd/Infernal Spirit Greg Skidmore.

St John’s Smith Square, London; Thursday 18th May 2017.

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