Monteverdi: Orfeo

Monteverdi Orfeo I gemelli Gonzalez Toro

Emiliano Gonzalez Toro Orfeo, Emőke Baráth Euridice/Musica, Natalie Pérez Messaggiera, Alix Le Saux Speranza/Pastore iii, Jérôme Varnier Caronte/Spirito, Mathilde Etienne Proserpina, Nicolas Brooymans Plutone/Pastore iv, Fulvio Bettini Apollo/Spirito/Eco, Zachary Wilder Pastore i/Spirito, Juan Sancho Pastore ii/Spirito, Alicia Amo Ninfa, Ensemble Vocal de Poche, I Gemelli
97:00 (2 CDs in a single case within a card folder with booklet)
naïve V 7176

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From the opening triple statement of the Toccata, crisply articulated and introducing variants of instrumentation for each stanza, it seems likely that this will be an imaginative version of Monteverdi’s first opera. And so it proves. It is the brain child of tenor Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, who not only sings the title role but directs his recently formed (2018) and excellent early music ensemble I Gemelli. In a note in the booklet Toro explains that it has been a career-long ambition to stage Orfeo, an ambition fulfilled in 2019 when it was given in Paris and Toulouse in a production by Mathilde Etienne, who not also sings a gently persuasive and touching Proserpine but is also responsible for an exceptionally scholarly booklet note. The present studio recording is based on those performances. 

The promise of the Toccata is maintained in a Prologue that is beautifully delivered by Emőke Baráth’s La Musica, each stanza of her varied verses in the recently-arrived stile recitativo inflected with real understanding of the text and incorporating little touches of ornamentation. With the arrival of the chorus that will play a major role in the wedding celebrations of Orfeo and Euridice, the opera moves to its Janus-like stance of looking both forward and backward. While the big opening chorus, ‘Vieni Imeneo’ is homophonic, many of the choruses are madrigalian and here Toro has clearly differentiated them by employing an outstanding one-per-part ensemble drawn from his soloists. It is a measure of how Toro has obviously thought deeply about the opera when he drops the continuo accompaniment entirely for the final lines of the tragic conclusion of act 2 – ‘Ahi caso acerbo …’ (Ah, bitter blow…), thus providing a stunning peroration and compounding further the profound emotional impact of all that has happened since the arrival of Messaggiera (the excellent Natalie Pérez) with news of the death of Euridice. Momentarily looking back to the wedding festivities, I do feel Toro takes some of the madrigalian choruses too swiftly, ‘Lasciate i monti’, being a particular example.

Emiliano Gonzalez Toro is a rare example of a singer seemingly equally at home in French and Italian Baroque opera. In some ways Orfeo, with its continuous stream of recitative, arioso and choruses is closer in outline to the French style, doubtless one reason Toro is so fond of it. He brings to the role only not a an exceptionally well-produced voice of great beauty, but a temperament well equipped to intensify (and release) emotion when called upon to do so. This feature is at its peak in act 3, of which of course the great florid outpouring of ‘Possente spirto’ forms the axis of the opera, not for nothing placed at its exact central point. Like all self-respecting Orfeo’s Toro of course sings Monteverdi’s heavily ornamented version and needless to say sings it well, though he does tend to skate over some of the very dense, fast moving passaggi. It is in fact perhaps the major weakness of the set that none of the singers is totally satisfying in respect of ornamentation. This defect is particularly acute at cadences, invariably left unadorned and thus leaving endings pallid and uninteresting. Returning to Toro’s Orfeo in that critical third act, it is at moments of heightened emotion that it is at its most truly compelling. Listen for example to the hopeless desperation in the voice at the end of Speranza’s aria; ‘Dove, ah, dove t’en vai’ … (Where, o where are you going …). At the end of ‘Possente spirto’ Monteverdi’s ornamented version finishes on the words ‘O de lei mei luci sereni’… (O clear light of my eyes…). At this point Orfeo’s use of his musical prowess to seduce Charon (Jérôme Varnier) ends and the poignant, bitter truth takes over; it’s a moment Toro takes full advantage of, as he does the great outburst of passion after Charon’s response, ‘Ahi, sveturato amante…’ (Alas, unhappy lover that I am …

There are many other moments in Toro’s performance that might be highlighted, and I’m sure it will repay further study. Equally impressive is the care with which he has ensured that all his excellent cast has been carefully coached to remember the critical maxim in this music – prima le parole, poi la musica. Were it not for the lack of ornamentation this might have become my favourite version, but it is an important flaw. It is salutary that for a more stylish approach to embellishment it is necessary to go back to Nigel Rogers’ 1984 outstanding recording on EMI, interestingly another version where the Orfeo also undertook the musical direction (with Charles Medlam).

Brian Robins