Despite being over a staggering 400 years-old, age is just a number for Monteverdi's L'Orfeo. And even though the dramatic basis for the opera belongs to even more ancient mythology, sympathies, passions, longings manage to transcend the centuries of humanity. When music and myth are combined so ideally, as they are in Monteverdi's masterpiece, a work of art results that remains stunningly fresh.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner © Sim Canetty-Clarke
Sir John Eliot Gardiner
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

In addition to Monteverdi's genius, the mind which deserves the most acclaim for Saturday night's vibrant performance belongs to Sir John Eliot Gardiner. At 72 years young, Gardiner remains one of the most provocative interpreters of music today. With enthusiasm, authority and calmness, Gardiner wrought every last drop of passion out of Monteverdi's musical cornucopia. It was an expansive reading that surged and slowed. Breathless silences and booming declarations were just some of the tools in Gardiner's box. Above all, it was a calculated commitment to spontaneity, when the music would be left to his singers to shape into the expressively limitless phrases and scenes. This was music-making pushed to the edge of the envelope.

The foundation of Gardiner's vision rested on the universally unparalleled level of musicianship of his performers. At the center was Krystian Adam as Orfeo. His vocal resources were formidable. Ardent, powerful, vulnerable, he is a singer of astonishing range. A sweet tenor with an endearingly direct style of vocalism made this Orfeo more than sympathetic, it made him vital, and at no time more so than in his Act III plea to Caronte. A dark, dashing physical presence, Adam catapulted into the role with a sincere naiveté, his blinding love for Eurydice the sole motivation for every inflection and gesture. And upon first encounter with his muse, the audience understood that possessed motivation all too well.

As all three characters, La Musica, Eurydice, and La Speranza, Francesca Aspromonte was irresistible. A natural performer, Aspromonte astounded with her completeness as an artist: playing guitar, tambourine, and dancing in addition to the ravishing soprano sounds she so effortlessly spun phrase after phrase. With perfect piano attacks and surging Baroque trills, Aspromonte’s technique allowed full utilization of every facet of her magnificently pleasing soprano voice. As La Musica, she was spritely; as Eurydice, she was captivating, and as La Speranza, she was majestic. “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here,” indeed. It was an unforgettable performance. 

The rest of the cast were similarly outstanding, led by Mariana Flores who gave a searing pronouncement of Eurydice’s demise in the second act. Andrew Tortise was a noble Apollo who did double duty as a Shepherd. Francesca Boncompagni was a warm Prosperina to compliment Gianlucca Buratto’s imposing Plutone and Caronte. Soloists Gareth Treseder, James Hall, and David Shipley were strong dramatic and vocal additions as Shepherds, singing with impressive cohesion. 

Of course, none of these strong vocal performances came as a surprise. The Monteverdi Choir, consisting of the soloists for a total of just 30, is an unparalleled ensemble, managing deceptively robust sounds, contrasted with the most carefully measured pianissimos. To a person, their dramatic contributions rivaled their musical ones. They are, quite simply, a joy to watch.

Their counterpart English Baroque Soloists were equally divine. Theirs was a panoply of sonorities, punctuated by the period cornetti and sackbuts, two violino piccolo (led by concertmaster Kati Debretzeni) and a sublime harp solo by Gwyneth Wentink. The orchestra was a feast for the eyes, as well as ears, with no fewer than five keyboards onstage between two players and the startling chittarrones and dulcian to observe. Intonation was flawless, attacks were clean (save a few brass entrances), and, like the Monteverdi Choir, expressiveness was paramount. 

And as a performance, this is where John Eliot Gardiner and his forces create a world that is unlike any other. Their deportment of the emotional power of Monteverdi’s groundbreaking opera was supported by world-class virtuosity, so much so that the concert staging of the work was a complete dramatic success. Mythological or symbolic sets and costumes were not missed in the slightest as the focus on the music and the performers’ focus on the expression therein succeeded impossibly well. But for John Eliot Gardiner, the impossible does not seem to be so.