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MONTEVERDI: L’Orfeo; L’Incoronazione di Poppea; Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria  

spacer Concentus Musicus Wien, Harnoncourt. No texts or translations. Warner Classics 825646314829 (9)


When Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s Telefunken recordings of the surviving operas of Monteverdi were released forty years ago, they were in a real way pioneering — particularly as an attempt at complete performances, given the scant availability of materials, and as a plausible reconstruction of the likely constitution of a continuo group and the way these players might realize the sketchy indications of the orchestral parts. The rerelease of these albums on Warner Classics after so many intervening years and subsequent performances (as well as later recordings by Harnoncourt himself) might have brought the realization that they have been superseded and are artifacts of their time. But the reality turns out to be that these versions retain a great deal of intelligence and integrity.

In fact, the striking reaction a listener has today is not that styles have changed but that Harnoncourt found his way into operatic presentation in the course of this project. The recording of the earliest opera, L’Orfeo, was made in 1968. It is not an especially descriptive realization of the score. There are occasional cute theatrical touches, in moments such as Orfeo’s boarding of Caronte’s boat, and there are some suitably nasty sounds to accompany Plutone and Caronte. But the two solo violins in “Possente spirto” don’t conjure up airiness or the testing of waters or the power of melody. On the whole, Harnoncourt doesn’t set up much of a pastoral idyll early in the work, which thus minimizes the otherworldly color of the later scenes, and one crucial quality that is lacking is a sense of humor. Yet it is essential that we not apply today’s standards of what opera is supposed to be to music that is four-hundred years old. Some of the singing doesn’t have the ease and naturalness of declamation that we have come to expect in this repertoire. But Eiko Katanosaka’s Ninfa is a wonderfully direct characterization, and Lajos Kozma’s Orfeo nicely captures a musician’s journey into new territory with “Possente spirto.” He later opens up into the more theatrical kind of singing we hear now, and he is suitably contrasted with the mellower baritone of Max von Egmond’s Apollo for the father–son finale. 

By the third recording, L’Incoronazione di Poppea (from 1973–74), we are in entirely different dramatic territory. For one thing, the fragmentation of the editing of L’Orfeo, which made it seem like a mosaic, is gone. But Harnoncourt has decided to play the piece as something of a radio drama, with theatrical characterization from the instruments. Only occasionally, as in the end of the Nerone–Seneca interview, does the instrumental ensemble fly off the handle. Indeed, much of the continuo work is subtly dramatic, with expression found as much in block chords and blunt endings as in washes of rolling arpeggios. Some pizzicato strings, some flowerings of lushness for Poppea and some extravagantly ornamented (if delightful) recorder playing are balanced by scenes that are, if anything, underplayed, such as some of Seneca’s music. The level of trumpet playing is higher than it was in L’Orfeo, where some bumps passed muster. Helen Donath’s Poppea, no piping vixen, and Elisabeth Söderström’s Nerone, employing firmness of tone to portray resolution and privilege, are outstanding. Paul Esswood’s Ottone, who gets a long solo scene that was not included in the John Eliot Gardiner recording, makes a particularly fine collaborator with the continuo group. Rotraud Hansmann’s Drusilla is the sleeper of the cast, saving a revelation of great character for Act III.

In between, in 1971, came Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria, the recording in which it now seems that Harnoncourt hit his stride. The continuo players know when to move and when to lie back. There is plenty of clueless rejoicing for the Phaeacians, but there is subtlety too. In fact, there’s too much subtlety to make a good match with the one anachronistic piece of casting, Sven Olof Eliasson’s Ulisse, whose flamboyance sometimes reaches a Vickers-like exuberance. But the fluidity of the chitarrone and lute playing is marvelous. Argentinean contralto Norma Lerer's Penelope in Ulisse is absolutely stunned with grief, the expression so pinpoint that we cannot help but be drawn in, but she then shows heartbreaking compassion to the beggar she has not yet recognized as her long-absent husband. There’s charm and sweetness for the little duet of Telemaco and Minerva, and the continuo in Telemaco’s long narration shifts almost imperceptibly, without calling attention to itself but coloring everything. Harnoncourt’s masterpiece is the scene that leads to the opera’s final release, which becomes almost physically unbearable. Harnoncourt has provided a bracing trumpet part for the music of Minerva, and the treatment of the ridiculous Iro is not overdone in the way so many subsequent interpretations have been. The most important thing to be said about this Ulisse is that after three and one quarter hours of music, the temptation is to start in at the top again. And the important thing about the Poppea is that in this performance it simply becomes one of the greatest operas ever composed. 

A bonus disc features Cathy Berberian, who rounds things off with a segment of music surviving from Monteverdi’s Arianna. Berberian figures in the recordings of Orfeo and Poppea, but she plunges herself so deeply into each role that she is scarcely recognizable. As the Messenger in L’Orfeo, she bleaches more and more color from her tone as the ghastly tale is unfolded, while a few ornaments maintain the vitality of address. She also is cunningly tough-but-fair as La Speranza. Her Ottavia in Poppea, with beautiful Italian diction, is devastating as she is unable to stammer past the first syllable of “addio.” We could go on about this, but her artistry demands to be heard, not discussed. spacer 


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