It is perhaps unusual for an art form to emerge from a series of discussions; usually we think that a long term development takes place, an integral sort of holistic evolution that comes born out of the experiences and desires of any particular populace. However, in this case, opera was quite deliberately fashioned as a form resulting from the philosophical decision of a group of men in Italy in the late 16th century, known to us today as the Florentine Camerata. Its principle lights, Jacopo Peri and Giulio Caccini composed the first known operas. The original basis of all this is the notion of Greek drama set to music, and so it is no surprise that the earliest works in the genre, for a few hundred years (even leading up to Mozart’s time) were based on these classical subjects.
One of the most famous was the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Enter Monteverdi, whose tremendous skill set him far and away the most accomplished opera composer of his generation, one whose powers had not been matched by any previously. His plays with music – opera – were a great success, and one of his greatest involved the story of these two personages, told by both Ovid and Virgil, involving the power of music to sway even those in the underworld. By the time Monteverdi’s life was at an end, the genre that he had so helped solidify had passed by him in an ever-evolving manner. Nonetheless, L’Orfeo is a great masterpiece, full of dramatic incidents and full choruses.
On record there have been many excellent productions, 24 currently listed at archivmusic.com. My favorite to this point has been the 1983 reading featuring Nigel Rogers and Emma Kirkby on EMI, one of their old “Reflexe” productions. Hearing the opening of that one compared to the new one by the Aston Magna Foundation proves interesting in several ways. The EMI has what seems to me a weaker period instrument presence, showing how far these instruments have progressed in 25 years. But the singing is something else, Kirkby’s lovely and affecting (not to mention extremely skillful) opening aria far surpassing the entrance of soprano Laurie Monahan on the current release, though Monahan is not bad by any means; it’s just that Kirkby is an acknowledged master at this sort of thing and has always had a real feeling for the idiom. The voices and choral work are very nicely done here, smooth and full, with a pronounced tendency towards the flowing, more richly lyrical aspects of Monteverdi’s score than the sometimes jarring and more disconnected reading of Rogers on EMI. But I cannot but help liking the EMI better overall, as it is the result of such fine singing; but we are now comparing likes and dislikes of such a minute order that it becomes difficult to split so many hairs (or bow strings!).
This release then can be recommended, not as a first choice perhaps, though there are too many others to sift through at this juncture, and I must mention that the EMI sells for only 20 bucks at the moment, and the sound is still up to snuff. I might also mention the relatively new Emmanuelle Haim production with Dessay and Bostridge on Virgin, always a favorite of mine. But this production shows that period performers on this side of the Atlantic have nothing to fear from Europe, and that Monteverdi is alive and well in the New World.
— Steven Ritter