Any work from the dawn of opera comes with many performance practice decisions but Orfeo, in particular, is heard within a particularly wide spectrum of possibilities that affect the piece’s overall tone. Should it behave like the secular madrigals it grew out of or Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 (with which the score shares musical references)? This new set from Avie occupies a welcome middle ground between what I call ‘the showbiz Orfeo’ (Emmanuelle Haïm on Virgin, with mainstream opera stars oozing charisma even in minor roles) and Rinaldo Alessandrini’s Naïve set with its period-performance modesty of means, adventurous ornamentation and crackling tempi.
Thus, the Avie set favours near-vibrato-less singers of ambiguous fach – proper voices indeed (not the vernacular singing occasionally heard in Monteverdi) but not necessarily ones you’d typically hear in modern opera houses. An other-worldly figure such as La Musica, sung by Natalie Dessay on the Virgin set, rightly sounds too ethereal to be human on Avie thanks to countertenor David Hurley. But the casting does not lack operatic vocal lustre: both Euridice (Faye Newton) and the Messenger (Emily Van Evera) offer much pleasure. And though Charles Daniels isn’t an Orfeo with Anthony Rolfe Johnson’s gleam (his sound rightly occupies a netherworld between tenor and baritone), he’s out to reveal the character’s soul more than anything else, aided by the aura created around him with chamber organ and a resonant acoustic, suggesting isolated loneliness in times of grief.
More than usual, instrumentalists are active story-telling participants. Transposition decisions make the underworld an unusually dark place. Ritornellos use internal ornaments effectively (not just at cadences) while the expressivity of the string-playing makes Act 2’s concluding sinfonia unbearably mournful. The entire enterprise is so thoroughly examined and deeply felt that the playing time is seven minutes longer than Haïm’s. However, you miss Haïm’s animation starting in Act 3, when this set has too much recording-studio politeness. In the underworld, characters such as Caronte and Plutone should set one’s spine shivering; though the roles are beautifully sung, respectively by Curtis Streetman and Christopher Purves, that doesn’t happen. Daniels’s great scene pleading for the return of Euridice with instrumental echo effects has quiet gravity but lacks desperation. But one must remember that Orfeo was written for a small-scale court performance where modern operatic rhetoric wasn’t needed – and probably hadn’t yet been invented.