Last night John Eliot Gardiner brought his eight-concert tour of the United States, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the founding of his Monteverdi Choir, to Davies Symphony Hall. Tour programs alternate between Claudio Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespro della Beate Vergine (Vespers for the Blessed Virgin), for which the Monteverdi Choir was formed for a concert performance given in 1964, and the earliest of Monteverdi’s three surviving operas L’Orfeo. Only two cities were chosen to host performances of both selections, Costa Mesa (this past weekend) and New York at Carnegie Hall. Last night’s selection was L’Orfeo.
L’Orfeo was first performed on February 24, 1607, during the period of Monteverdi’s service at the Gonzaga court in Mantua. By 1601 he had escalated to the position of Maestro di Cappella. For the most part the Duke of Mantua saw music as a source of entertainment for both himself and for guests invited to major court affairs. It probably would not have been too inaccurate to say that he viewed Monteverdi as his “song and dance man;” and Monteverdi certainly kept him well supplied on both counts.
However, L’Orfeo was not a court project. It was created for the Accademia degli Invaghiti, the “Invaghiti” being a society of music-lovers. Thus, it was conceived as entertainment for a more general public. Fundamentally, it was still a “song and dance routine” but with more than a little spectacle thrown in for the sake of public appeal. The circumstances behind this production meant that Monteverdi could work with greater resources than the Duke of Mantua would have allowed him.
Those resources were most evident last night in the instruments of the English Baroque Soloists, joining the Monteverdi Choir for the tour. The strings were suitably reduced. However, within that scale there was a generous supply of winds and brass and two “continuo stations,” one on either side of the stage. Combined with the Monteverdi Choir, this made for a richly expansive sound that never had any trouble filling the cavernous space of Davies.
Gardiner also toured with twelve vocal soloists, who apparently alternated in the roles they sang from one performance to the next. At least four of the women were also at least moderately accomplished dancers, meaning that the production really was a “song and dance routine.” The staging of the Orpheus narrative itself was kept to a minimum, but so was the account of that narrative. Ultimately, L’Orfeo provided Monteverdi with an opportunity to display the qualities of fine solo voices in every vocal range from soprano to bass and to impress his audience with the power of a full mixed chorus matched in strength by its instrumental accompaniment. This was music in support of spectacle; but, because the music was by Monteverdi, it never failed to stand on its own virtues.
It would also be fair to say that, under Gardiner’s direction, expressiveness was primarily the domain of the music itself. The dance episodes and the minimal staging of the narrative itself all served to guide the listener through the progress of the narrative. However, it was through the music that characters were established. This involved not only the key characters of the myth itself (Orfeo, Euridice, Plutone, and Proserpina) but also the “supporting roles” of shepherds, spirits of the Underworld, and allegorical characters, all of whom were endowed with individual personality traits through Monteverdi’s music. All this took a generous amount of time, but it was time well spent in fleshing out a myth narrative that can be told in only a matter of minutes.
Ultimately, Gardiner’s was a performance that reminded those of us in attendance that L’Orfeo had been written for a public, rather than a court, audience. However, it was an audience that took its love of music very seriously. Monteverdi knew how to appeal to his listeners’ refined tastes; and, through Gardiner’s perceptive interpretations, his music continues to appeal that way.