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PLUHAR: Orfeo Chamán

CD Button Mancini; Pennisi, Capezzuto, Gonzalez Toro; L’Arpeggiata, Pluhar. Text and translation. Erato 0190295969677

Recordings Orfeo Chaman Cover 417
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AUSTRIAN THEORBIST Christina Pluhar and her ensemble, L’Arpeggiata, are Baroque-music conquistadors, expanding their musical horizons westward toward the New World. But rather than conquer and subdue, they integrate. Like their 2012 album, Los Pájaros Perdidos, L’Arpeggiata’s latest project blends together elements of Baroque style with South American folk and popular music. Orfeo Chamán, a neo-Baroque operatic adaptation of the Orpheus myth, reimagines the character as a pre-Columbian shaman. In his Spanish-language libretto, Colombian poet Hugo Chaparro Valderrama follows the familiar sequence of events from Monteverdi’s Orfeo, even incorporating Baroque poetic devices. But instead of crossing the River Styx to fetch Euridice from the underworld, Orfeo passes into the spirit realm by drinking ayahuasca, a trance-inducing potion ingested in the ceremonies of indigenous Amazonian peoples.

Pluhar has pieced together a score in the spirit of the Baroque pasticcio. There are instrumental interludes by seventeenth-century composers alongside arrangements of Mexican and South American folk songs. She composed many of the numbers herself, in a Latin American/Baroque fusion style, often drawing on existing melodies or bass lines; passacaglia and chaconne dovetail with samba and rumba. The opera’s prelude opens with a slowly unrolled continuo chord on lute; to this are added various chirping and buzzing noises in a dreamy jungle soundscape. A seventeenth-century ostinato takes over, joined by jazz piano, double bass, maracas and guiro in a kind of bossa-nova-meets-Monteverdi accompaniment. The Baroque and Latin American styles complement one another beautifully, probably because the two traditions share so much—improvisation, rhythmic and harmonic variety, plucked instruments, dance forms and a preference for melancholic, minor-mode melodies.

Armed with a guitar instead of a lyre, Argentinian singer/songwriter Nahuel Pennisi tames the wild beasts as Orfeo. His duet with Euridice, “Romance de la luna tucumana,” is his own arrangement of a song by his fellow argentino Pedro Aznar that showcases Pennisi’s unique method of playing the guitar horizontally on his lap. He has a gentle, boyish voice with a mournful quality that suits his tragic character, especially in his moving lamento “Cubrámonos con cenizas.” By contrast, Chilean–Swedish mezzo Luciana Mancini is a feisty, hot-blooded Euridice. Though operatically trained, Mancini is also an exceptional folk singer; she shows off a robust, Celia Cruz-like chest voice in her rendition of the foot-stomping Venezuelan folksong “Pajarillo.” As Orfeo’s companion nahual—a shape-shifting being of Aztec mythology—Vincenzo Capezzuto is a bit of a shape-shifter himself; he has a sweet, feathery alto that’s so convincingly feminine I assumed in the liner notes the o in “Vincenzo” was a typo. His pop-leaning delivery helps smooth over the strained “old church-choir lady” sound that often plagues similar-sounding countertenors. —Joe Cadagin 

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