Il Pianto d’Orfeo or the Birth of Opera

Nicholas Achten baritone, Deborah York soprano, Lambert Colson cornetto, Scherzi Musicali
75:49
Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 88843078722

This intriguing CD takes the Orpheus legend as a springboard to explore the world of early opera. To a surprising extent the legend dominated the early years of opera, providing in its story a powerful message about the power of music, but also a hero who conveniently performs monophonically to his own instrumental accompaniment. What Nicholas Achten has done here is stitched together a fantasy opera in which numbers from a range of these early settings are placed in sequence to retell the story. At first I determined to listen to the sequence ‘blind’ to see whether the music by Monteverdi stood out from his contemporaries as many commentators suggest that it ought to. Of course this proved impossible to judge as I already knew the Monteverdi well, but to my mind much of the ‘supporting’ music by Rossi, Merula, Caccini, Cavalieri, Piccinini, Falconieri, Landi, Sartorio and of course Peri seemed highly effective and, in the hands of Scherzi Musicali, powerfully expressive.

The role of Orfeo is taken by the Nicholas Achten, whose light baritone voice seems constantly on the verge of ornamentation and is perfectly suited to the music – his account of the Monteverdi’s superlative aria Possente spirto is one of the finest I have heard. His Euridice, who in keeping with the earliest settings plays a much smaller role in the drama, is Deborah York whose soprano voice is also convincingly expressive. The accompanying consort of strings plus two cornetts and a range of continuo keyboards including harpsichord, organ and virginals occasionally joined by theorbo, guitar, harp and bass cittern provides highly charged textures to support the singers as well as performing purely instrumental items with considerable delicacy and passion. This CD is a true pleasure to listen to, and provides the very useful service of bringing several early operatic composers out of the textbooks and into the limelight, if perhaps in the context of a co-operative effort which few of them would have countenanced in life.

D. James Ross