In “La storia di Orfeo,” French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky and Boston’s own soprano Amanda Forsythe, collaborating with the Boston Early Music Festival’s virtuoso chamber ensemble, treated us to a delectable evening of 17th-century-opera selections based on the legendary tale. The performance, I heard Friday at Jordan Hall will repeat on Sunday at 3 PM. A few tickets remain HERE.
The story of Orpheus, the legendary Greek poet whose music tamed wild beasts, stones, and even death itself, found its way into Renaissance mythology via Vergil’s Eclogues and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The rediscovery in mid-15th-century Italy of the literature of classical antiquity brought with it a renewed interest in the Orpheus story. Theatrical adaptations with music, and soon operas — from Peri’s Euridice of 1600 to Offenbach’s can-can inspired spoof of 1858 — told of the singer’s marriage to Eurydice, her sudden death from a snake bite, and Orpheus’s ill-fated journey to the underworld to bring her back. Philippe Jaroussky created a pastiche opera for the concert stage by drawing on scenes from three different operatic versions of the tale: Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, first performed for a courtly audience in Mantua in 1607; Luigi Rossi’s L’Orfeo, composed for the French court and performed at the Palais Royal in Paris in 1647, and Antonio Sartorio’s L’Orfeo, first performed at a public theater in Venice in 1672. On Friday’s program, instrumental works by contemporaneous composers provided interludes between the vocal numbers.
After an introductory Sinfonia in two sections. Sartorio’s L’Orfeo opens with a duet for the lovers, who rejoice in their happy love in imitative dialogue, outdoing one another with florid embellishments and echo effects. Forsythe’s limpid soprano matched Jaroussky’s resonant and flexible delivery at every turn. Sartorio’s duet is a fully formed aria with symmetrical phrasing. By contrast, Monteverdi’s paean to Euridice, “Rosa del ciel” (Rose of heaven), projected the irregularly shaped text in a highly expressive and emotionally charged arioso. A full complement of continuo instruments — co-directors Paul O’Dette (chitarrone), Stephen Stubbs (lute), Maxine Eilander, Baroque harp, David Morris, viola da gamba, Doug Balliett, double bass, Michael Sponseller, harpsichord — provided harmonic and rhythmic support. In Rossi’s L’Orfeo, Euridice’s love song pitted an ornate and irregularly phrased vocal line against a rigid ground bass in the traditional la-sol-fa-mi descending pattern. Orfeo’s joyful “Vi ricordi, o boschi ombrosi” (Do you remember, shady groves) in Act 1 of Monteverdi’s opera harks back to the Renaissance pastoral tradition in a strophic dance song in 6/4 time with a regular alternation of 2 x 3 and 3 x 2 rhythmic patterns. Violins (concertmaster Robert Mealy and Julie Andrijeski) and violas (Sarah Darling and Laura Jeppesen) joined the continuo ensemble in the ritornello interludes. Continuing the story, Rossi’s “M’ami tu?” (Do you love me?) was a lighthearted duet, aria style, followed by a duet over an extended ground bass pattern. Tragedy intervened when Euridice, bitten by a serpent, dies and is discovered by Orfeo. In this scene from his opera, Sartorio employed a dramatically heightened accompanied recitative with string interjections, a mode that displayed the power of Jaroussky’s delivery at its most affective. “Lagrime dove sete?” (O tears, where are you?) from Rossi’s opera introduced variations on the familiar lament bass. Ornamented realizations in the strings alternated with its three stanzas, each punctuated by the same “Lagrime” refrain. Concluding the first half of the program, the Passacalio by Biagio Marini (1594-1663) explored a simple bass pattern in a series of virtuosic instrumental variations.
Harsh harmonies depicted extreme suffering in Orfeo’s lament from Sartorio’s opera, the da capo aria “È morta, Euridice?” (Euridice is dead). From the Jordan Hall balcony, the ethereal voice of Euridice’s shade answered, first in an impassioned arioso with plucked continuo instruments alone, then in an aria over a chromatically descending ground accompanied by the full ensemble. Answering in a mournful arioso, Orfeo promised to follow her to hell’s shadows. Orfeo’s famous aria from Monteverdi’s Act 3 formed the centerpiece of the program. Guided by Hope, Orfeo arrives at the river Styx, where he begs the boatman, Charon, to ferry him across to the underworld. After a brief Sinfonia, he pleads his case in a series of six stanzas of increasing virtuosity; only the final strain is set to an unadorned melody, perhaps the most moving of all. Here was a vehicle for Jaroussky’s vocal agility and stylistic acumen, projected with utmost sensitivity. Inserted between the lines of each stanza, elaborate passage work and echo effects in specified instruments symbolized the power of music to move the hardhearted. In the absence of both cornettos and a chamber organ, violins and other strings took their place; the dulcet timbre of Maxine Eilander’s Baroque harp added contrasting tone color to the third stanza. The German composer Johann Rosenmüller’s Sonata Settima a 4 from his Sonatae a 2, 3, 4 e 5 of 1682 was played with sonorous lyricism by BEMF’s violinists and violists.
Not related to the Orfeo story, a scene from Agostino Steffani’s Orlando generoso of 1691, in which Angelica and Ruggiero each lament an absent lover, displayed French influence in the dance rhythms of its da capo arias and duets. In conclusion, Jaroussky selected the fateful scene of the lovers’ reunion and Euridice’s second disappearance from Sartorio’s opera, followed by Orfeo’s moving final lament from Rossi’s opera of 1642. Incorporating a sometimes dizzying succession of styles, Jaroussky’s pastiche belongs to a long tradition of composite operas in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, when arias were inserted and removed according to the whims and talents of available singers, and of instrumental concerts where vocal numbers often interrupted a sequence of symphonic movements. In this program, linking together disparate excerpts based on a single “story” presented a chance to compare a range of musical emotions, offering above all a vehicle for virtuoso singing that was both deeply studied and technically spectacular. Thunderous applause was rewarded with a charming rendition of the final duet from Monteverdi’s Coronation of Poppea.
Virginia Newes, who lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.