Kobie van Rensburg / Jean-Claude Malgoire

Monteverdi: L'Orfeo (1607)

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This recording of Monteverdi's great tale of Orpheus in the underworld, the very first operatic masterpiece, was made live during the run of a production of Orfeo in the French city of Tourcoing in 2004. Orfeo is usually heard in studio recordings. A live performance using all of Monteverdi's unusual instruments of 1607 is difficult to put together; the work is large and expensive to produce, and it's hard to recoup those costs from audiences still generally unfamiliar with the music A studio performance will deliver the details of instrumentation that emerge from Monteverdi's giant orchestra in a way that a live recording cannot; the work followed directly in the tradition of the Florentine wedding spectaculars mounted by the Medici family, and Monteverdi had the resources to create all kinds of fabulous instrumental effects. The live recording technology used here isn't especially sophisticated; the sound is boxy, and there's lots of stomping and clanking around. Several fine studio recordings of Orfeo exist, and the listener looking for a recording of the work will not go wrong with the Harmonia Mundi release led by René Jacobs.

All that said, this is a fine Orfeo for those who know the work and want to get into it further. Veteran French Baroque interpreter Jean-Claude Malgoire leads South African tenor Kobie van Rensburg and a cast of other moderately knowns in an interpretation that he has fully thought through in both large outlines and small details. There have been plenty of more virtuosic performances of early Baroque monody, but this group works together well. The most striking feature of this recording is the phrasing of the individual arias. They breathe. The improvisatory component of seventeenth century music is often stressed, but what's not so often put into practice is that the sense of freedom in the music extended to ensembles, not just soloists. Focus on any of the large contingent of continuo players (there is a harp, four lutenists, a harpsichordist, an organist, and a percussionist) as they interact with the singers, and you will hear a sensitive interplay among the performers that grand, sumptuous readings of the work may lose. The instrumentation is authentic, and, given the fact that the opera would have originally been performed in a large space, the live recording can help you imagine the original setting. In short, if this release has the flaws that attend a live performance of music difficult to capture in the medium of recordings, it also has the virtues of live recordings in general.

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