Edinburgh International Festival
14th August ONLY
This year’s International Festival is celebrating the 450th anniversary of Monteverdi’s birth with concert performances of his three operas L’Orfeo, Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria and L’Incoronazione di Poppea by John Eliot Gardiner, the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir.
The idea of setting drama to music emerged in Florence in the 1590s, and the first opera to survive complete is Jacopo Peri’s Euridice: Monteverdi’s are the earliest works still to be in the modern repertory. L’Orfeo retells the classic Orpheus legend – he falls in love with Euridice;, they are to be married; she is bitten by a snake and dies; Orfeo, heartbroken, descends to the Underworld to plead to be allowed bring her back to life; he is permitted to do so as long as he does not look back as he leaves Hades…but of course he does, and Euridice is lost for ever.
Initially described as ‘a play in music’ – favola in musica – L’Orfeo is a perfect marriage words and music, expressing deep emotion with the human voice singing solo, in duets, trios, and in full chorus. Many of the minor characters also played their part in the larger chorus, stepping forward for their solos and rejoining their fellow singers afterwards. The chorus wasn’t simply static, but a group of individuals who were involved in, and reacted to, the drama being played out in front of them.
Lucile Richardot, who played the messenger who had to report the tragedy of Euridice’s death, was outstanding. Krystian Adam’s Orfeo apologised in advance for his throat infection but honestly would we have known? He was magnificent both vocally and dramatically. Euridice commanded my appreciation not only for her voice but also for accompanying herself at one stage on the clarsach.
The orchestra were also – I’m running out of superlatives here! – superb: but with John Eliot Gardiner conducting, what else could they be? Having them centre-stage, with chorus and soloists working around them, meant that the ensemble was excellent, and the rapport between singers and instrumentalists perfect. The audience were gripped: there was a collective gasp of horror when Orfeo couldn’t bear it any longer and looked back to see if Euridice was there… and was a storm of applause at the end for what I feel was the best, most engrossing, performance of L’Orfeo that I’ve ever seen.