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In Review > North America

"The Birth of Opera"

NEW YORK CITY
White Light Festival, Lincoln Center
10/17

In Review NYC Birth of Opera hdl 118
The cast of Monteverdi’s Orfeo at Lincoln Center
© Kevin Yatarola

JOHN ELIOT GARDINER'S readings of the three extant Monteverdi operas were billed as “The Birth of Opera”; if you take the label literally, the series, part of Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival, proved that the art form was born full-grown. With Gardiner leading his marvelous English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir, along with a terrific group of vocal soloists, the three performances displayed thecomposer’s mature genius for creating dramatic moments and drawing quirky, ambiguous, fully human characters in music. 

The three Alice Tully Hall presentations (Orfeo,October 18; Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria, October 19; L’Incoronazione di Poppea, October 21) were billed as “semi-staged,” with direction credited to Elsa Rooke and Gardiner himself. The description was modest: these were full-fledged, theatrically charged dramatic mountings, complete unto themselves. Scenic depictions of the Underworld, the shores of Ithaca or the Roman court would scarcely have enhanced them. In fact, Rick Fisher’s lighting schemes created visual effects as expressive as any scenery, powerfully sepulchral in the choral lament for the dead Euridice, when the lights dimmed to the point where the only illumination in the hall came from the musicians’ desk lamps.

The conductor’s role in this is significant. Rather than impose directorial ideas that undercut the music’s dramatic potency (as happens so often on opera’s mainstages), Gardiner and his collaborator Rooke devised stage business that consistently took its cue from the dramatic implications of the score, enacted by casts so fully immersed in their tasks that gestures and singing melded into an organic whole. In their sensitivity to musical impulse, the performances reminded me of the Don Giovanni that conductor Iván Fischer—like Gardiner, serving as his own director—has twice brought to New York. These were stagings by people who truly heard the music. 

Among the roughly two dozen singers who took part over the three evenings, there were a number of standouts. Tenor Krystian Adam was a revelatory Orfeo. Acts III and V of Orfeo are virtually monodramas; the variety and shape that Adam brought to the long stretches of monody rendered them as compelling dramatic arcs. He used a myriad of luminous colors, keeping the sound firm and vibrant throughout, but was arguably most affecting when singing in an iridescent mezza voce. This voice could move the gods to tears. 

Mezzo Marianna Pizzolato played Penelope in Ulisse and Ottavia in Poppea and was announced on both occasions as suffering from a throat infection. Her indisposition may have manifested itself in some moments of vocal caution, especially in vehement declamation. But this was a small matter in the face of her overall achievement. She bound tone to text so cohesively that the two elements were inextricable, and she created two vivid portraits of regal despair. Last season, Pizzolato had made an equivocal effect in her Met debut, as Isabella in L’Italiana in Algeri; it was a pleasure to encounter her in this entirely more congenial context.

The cavernous bass of Gianluca Buratto, an astounding sound in and of itself, brought supernatural force to the utterances of Charon and Pluto in Orfeo. In Ulisse, Buratto played Neptune and the pernicious suitor Antinoo; in the latter role, the blackness of his voice suggested the villain’s perfidy. He was even more effective as Seneca in Poppea, turning the death scene into a moment of noble tragedy.

Veteran baritone Furio Zanasi was Apollo in Orfeo and Liberto in Poppea, with his most extensive assignment being the title role of Ulisse. His sound was somewhat frayed in its lower reaches but attained startling clarity on high, as in his tirade against sleep upon arriving in Ithaca. In all three operas, his stylistic authority and delivery of text were above reproach. As sung by Zanasi and Pizzolato, the final duet for Ulysses and Penelope became a sublime portrayal of conjugal devotion.

Soprano Hana Blažíková’s best moment was right at the beginning, in Orfeo’sprologue, when she declaimed La Musica’s pronouncements with sharp-edged decisiveness. As Minerva in Ulisse, her top sounded somewhat frayed, perhaps due to fatigue in the middle of the three-opera marathon. She was in better vocal shape as Poppea, but I was still not entirely convinced by her work. Her straightened, nearly vibrato-less tone, boring consistently through the center of the pitch, allowed her to present the music with unimpeachable accuracy. But it prevented her from bringing the ultimate measure of sensuousness to this most seductive of operatic heroines.

As Speranza in Orfeo, countertenor Kangmin Justin Kim’s penetrating delivery of the pronouncement “Lasciate ogni speranza ò voi ch’entrate” seemed to summon hell itself. The same sinister power would flash out in his tyrannical pronouncements as Nero in Poppea; even in the dulcet love scenes, you could feel the malevolence held in check. This emperor was sometimes amorous and, in his obeisance to an unrestrained id, often comic. But he was always terrifying, with the spectacle of a petulant, self-obsessed ruler, an empire crumbling under his governance, attaining a disturbingly contemporary relevance. 

I mean to suggest no disapproval in not mentioning the other singers. In fact, more than any individual efforts, it was the performers’ unanimity of purpose that distinguished the series. You could sense in their treatment of attack, phrasing and ornamentation that they had worked assiduously with their conductor to achieve a consistent stylistic approach. This bore special fruit when the soloists joined the five-member Monteverdi Choir for choral numbers: one could hear individual timbres, but they merged into a single exquisite entity. In this, the singers mirrored the work of the wonderful English Baroque Soloists, who throughout the three evenings combined virtuoso prowess with chamber-music-like attention to blend and balance. —Fred Cohn 



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