A BEAUTY AND THE BEST
Tragic yet uplifting, this opera looks wonderful and sounds even better
THERE is almost always an argument – sometimes fairly heated – over the respective strengths of opera and ballet at the International Festival.
In recent years, opera has certainly held the upper hand; and traditional grand opera at that, against an uncompromisingly contemporary array of sometimes ordinary, occasionally worse, dance performances.
This year seems to be no exception, though the opera on this 70th anniversary of the Festival seems even more traditional, grander and better than ever.
We started with a truly magnificent Walküre, followed by a very fine production of Don Giovanni.
Now that storming start has been followed up with a beautiful, lyrical, tragic yet uplifting concert performance of what I suppose we must call the most traditional opera of all – L’Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi.
Given its premiere in Mantua, where the composer was director of the court musicians of the ruling Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga, in 1607, it was the first great operatic masterpiece and the earliest opera still performed on a reasonably regular basis.
Now it has been performed at the Festival as the opening work of a series of three Monteverdi operas.
Also including Il Ritorno D’Ulisse in Patria and L’Incoronazione di Poppea, Monteverdi 450 is almost a mini festival within the Festival, celebrating the 450th anniversary of the composer’s birth in 1567.
Right at the start of L’Orfeo, a figure called La Musica (in this production, Czech soprano Hana Blazikova) tells the audience, ‘I am Music’ as she explains to them what kind of an entertainment they are about to see and hear. Clearly, this not something subsequent composers felt compelled to include – but at the start of the first great opera, one can hardly argue with it.
Miss Blazikova also sang Euridice, the wondrously beautiful bride-to-be of L’Orfeo who was so cruelly taken from him when bitten by a snake while gathering flowers on their wedding day.
In common with most of the rest of the cast, she was superb. Her lovely, plaintive voice a delight to listen to, she was also as beautiful as her character.
IKNOW it’s perhaps a little unfair to expect an opera singer necessarily to look like a classical beauty but on occasions such as this it does help.
Her L’Orfeo, Polish tenor Krystian Adam, was apparently not feeling his best. Before the start of the performance, a stage announcement told us he was suffering from a throat infection, but was still going to sing.
Well if this was him at something short of his best, I would just love to hear him sing at 100 per cent, tip-top condition.
But perhaps the best voice of the evening was that of Italian bass Gianluca Buratto, who sang both Caronte, infamous boatman of the River Styx, and Plutone, Lord of the Underworld.
He was a powerful presence, both as the boatman ‘sung to sleep’ could cross the river and as Plutone, prevailed upon to allow L’Orfeo to rescue Euridice from the Underworld by his wife Proserpina, a shorter but beautifully judged offering from Francesca Boncompagni.
It is not her fault that tragedy lies ahead, but that of the man with the golden lyre, who can conquer all Hell but not himself. The principals are more than ably supported by the Monteverdi Choir, founded by John Eliot Gardiner as part of the period instrument movement of the 1960s.
The really rather wonderful music came courtesy of another of Gardiner’s creations, the English
Baroque Soloists, founded in 1978.
It can be a little strange to hear the sound of sackbuts, chitarroni, recorders and dulcians in a 21st century orchestra, but this sound is unique. The entire production was superbly marshalled by Gardiner himself, conducting in the, well, rather baroque style that is his very own.
This really is the sort of thing for which we have an International Festival.
Fast but not furious: Dancers in Yo Carmen