Last year Concerto Italiano first ventured to Australia bringing highly acclaimed performances of Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers of the Blessed Virgin. They have returned this year for a single sold-out performance of L’Orfeo, again by Monteverdi, as part of the Adelaide Festival (a performance of Barrie Kosky’s Glyndebourne Saul was occurring simultaneously in another venue, as well as many other amazing productions and more than a thousand Fringe events of varying quality.)

Rinaldo Alessandrini © Morgan Roudaut | Naïve
Rinaldo Alessandrini
© Morgan Roudaut | Naïve

Concerto Italiano impresses with its class. The ensemble is on a world tour honouring the 450th anniversary of Monteverdi’s birth and the 410th anniversary of the first performance of L’Orfeo. Since director Rinaldo Alessandrini, who also conducts, plays the harpsichord and the organ, founded Concerto Italiano in 1984, it has become one of the premier Baroque ensembles in the world.

Dwarfed by the massive ornate organ dominating the back wall of the Adelaide Town Hall they took up less than half the stage, and yet commanded my attention. Likewise, the soloists, adding minimal action with their words (other than walking from behind the large organ, usually singing with hands limply at their side, then returning as soon as they had sung their piece) were able to capture the complete attention of the audience. While this production was almost the antithesis of the style of Saul it was nevertheless equally compelling.

The twenty three piece ensemble of Baroque instruments, with Craig Marchitelli and Ugo Di Giovanni, showing obvious enjoyment in playing their theorbos, closeted next to the conductor, was a close-knit combination of precision and excellence.

Anna Simboli, a rich, deep, resonate soprano, projected an expressive La Musica, singing with both voice and hands to welcome the audience, calm every troubled heart and introduce the story of Orfeo. Simboli, with change of dress, also sang the demanding role of Euridice.

Except for Orfeo, the men, dressed uniformly in black, all sang more than one role. I had difficulty distinguishing who was who, and indeed which persona they were singing – was he being a shepherd, or maybe Apollo, or even Echo or perhaps a Spirit. In the end I decided to just absorb the music, and let the story flow. The marvellously clear, commanding bass of Salvatore Vitale did stand out. He was Charon, the ferryman to Hades who carried souls of the dead across the rivers Styx, and from whom Orfeo stole a boat to get to Hades.

The rich tenor voice of Valerio Contaldo, singing Orfeo, was most attractive. Indeed he was amazing. He was clear and expressive, always singing with feeling, no more so than when telling Euridice his “rosa del ciel et vita del mondo” how much she meant to him, before they walked off hand in hand, the chorus joyfully wishing them well.

Choruses are integrally woven into this opera, usually a combination of up to five of the cast being shepherds, nymphs or spirits, and always blending their voices beautifully and truly.

When Orfeo heard of Euridice’s death by snake-bite the mood palpably changed. It was as if the world had stopped. Everything slowed and became more solemn, the timbre of the reeds more sombre, the harp more steady, Contaldo measured in grief. Attempting to express this grief his “Tu se’ morta” refrain ending with a powerfully moving “Addio, terra, addio cielo e sole, addio” was brilliant.

Multi-tasked soprano Francesca Cassinari sang the role of a messenger and a nymph before, at the commencement of Act III, like a butterfly emerging from the cocoon, assuming the role of Speranza, to lead Orfeo towards his dead bride in Hades, but only as far as the Styx, where she dramatically proclaimed the message “abandon hope all ye who enter” before retiring from the stage.

Soprano Silvia Frigato excelled in the cameo role of Proserpina, wife of Pluto as, pleadingly, she sweetly beseeched her husband to show mercy to Orfeo. Matteo Bellotto, another multitasker, gave vent to his magnificent deep mellow bass, making even the wooden floor resonate, when, as Pluto, ruler of the underworld, he boldly issued the conditional command for Euridice’s release (“La sua cara Euridice … Orfeo ritrovi”). It was magnificent.

Tenor Raffaele Giordani was more of an appeasing Apollo. He brought the opera to its happy conclusion, figuratively descending from heaven to invite Orfeo to join him there where he might recognise Euridice’s likeness in the stars. Giordani did not seem completely in command of the role. Finally, although there were no dancers, the orchestra opened all stops to play the rousing moresca which concluded the opera.

This was a very authentic performance, capturing the vision of four hundred years ago. I found it an intensely satisfying experience.