Before I write about the performance of L’Orfeo I saw the other day, I think I need to provide some background on vocal techniques. If you are already familiar with the differing sound of what are classed as “authentic performance practice” vs the modern operatic sound, feel free to skip straight to the main review section. Otherwise, keep reading.
Just to refresh, this is the sort of voice we think of in opera
Jessye Norman singing Dido's lament
You might think of this as a “bel canto” sound. Basically, this is a style of singing designed to carry over a large orchestra, in large theatres. A singer sounding like this has trained to maximise the size of the sound they produce, by working to increase the resonance they can produce. This also requires using the abdominal muscles and diaphragm to provide airflow under pressure through the throat and out. Paradoxically, training in this way is often about learning to “get out of the way of the sound” rather than learning what to do to produce the best sound.
The biggest difference between how a classical singer and the average "normal" singer produce sound is in how they control the airflow. When you sing, do you think of pulling the air up through your throat? Or does the air get pushed up by the pressure from below? If you don't know, you probably have a sensation of pulling it up most of the time. It's just one of the reasons why opera singers sound different. Opera singers by relying on pressure from below, free up mechanisms that enable a more resonant sound to develop.
This produces a sound with lots of resonance, or harmonic overtones, if you will. This provides the additional ping that enables operatic voices to cut through the wall of sound of an orchestra (or a chorus) and be heard as a distinct recognisable sound, carrying over the other sounds. How is this achieved? By training, based on long recognised practices developed over past centuries. Also, more recently, the why this works has become understood better as a result of improving medical diagnostic equipment providing a better understanding of how singers function, by enabling us to see into throats as people sing.
Now, with opera singers, we have a pretty good idea of what they sounded like from the 1800's on. We can draw lines and compare with recorded voices and get a reliable sense of how the performers many composers were writing for sounded like. And we have written descriptions, and teaching manuals written from this time to compare, including some that we still refer to. And, it is close enough in memory that we can tell the changes in technique have been more about a lifting of the lower standards, than changes at the high end. So, we have more singers who can sing well, than we had in the past.
One of the most common beliefs is that the level of additional harmonics in early vocal practice was much less. The orchestras they were singing against were not as large, so they did not have the need to produce as focused and loud a sound to be heard. So, in many ways, the sound we hear today is more a result of increasing orchestra numbers, than any aesthetic ideal, though the result became an ideal as well, if you follow.
But, the modern developing technique did not just increase the sound produced, it also enabled notes to be sung over a bigger range. There is a noticeable increase in the range required to sing music when you go from the the baroque and earlier to more recent music. The improving techniques which were passed on allowed the extremes of a singer's voice to be used easier, and with more pleasing results. The additional resonance allowed vocal imperfections to be hidden, and allowed the singers more flexibility, as well as beautify the sound.
Another thing that happened with the changing techniques was the increase in the use of vibrato. We can assume this partly because vibrato comes with a free healthy vocal technique. A good voice technique is usually thought of as one that brings freedom to the voice production, with reduced tension. And, of course, as tension goes, and the voice becomes free, you will get vibrato. It's one of the things a voice teacher will be pleased as it happens, not as an end in itself, but because it is a sign of reduced tension.
But vibrato also is useful for singers because it hides pitch imperfections and helps to even the sound across a singer’s range. If you are slightly off the required frequency for a note, the vibrato masks that, by adding momentary changes on pitch and volume. It is commonly accepted that early music singers did not sing with strong vibrato, in part because of its association with modern voice production. So, if it is something that develops during the development of a modern technique, many assume automatically, it does not belong in an early music vocal sound, forgetting that some people have one naturally, simply because that is the way they always sound. It's not like we can check the recordings, is it?
So, if you were listening to a baroque or pre baroque vocal performance, what should you be hearing? Well, part of it is inevitably a matter of taste. There is a school of thought that says you should always try to replicate the experience the music was created for, to best appreciate it, a position I do hold some sympathy for. After all, hearing Handel and Bach performed on the type of instruments they wrote for, not modern ones, has revolutionised how we hear their music. We now hear the lightness and dance rhythms that frequently were lost amidst the richness of a modern orchestra's textures. This is what we call the "authentic performance" or period instrument movement.
Emma Kirkby singing the same aria with a more "authentic" sound
At the same time, we also have seen the problems of performing on those same instruments. Modern violin strings made from metal hold their tune longer, and provide a richer sound. Most of the modern wind and brass instruments are easier to play, and easier to hit on tune notes, ensuring the notes played are what the composer wrote, even if they do not sound the way he expected. As a result, many feel we should stick to using modern instruments. Surely Bach would have written for modern violins if he knew about them, would be how they might think.
Of course, with instruments, its fairly clear cut, we know what was being written for, we know what instruments were being made by whom, and often, for whom. With voices, it gets harder. We have no way for sure of saying what people sounded like. We can make educated guesses about performance styles and techniques based on what we know of musical history and the like, but they do remain guesses. We know that early operas were usually performed in large rooms in royal palaces, not in theatres, and we know in many cases who performed them, but we are guessing what they sounded like.
So, if we know that the spaces were smaller, and the number of performers used were smaller, it stands to reason that the techniques which enable those things to happen would not have been used. There was no need for them, so those they had not been developed. So, the high level of harmonic overtones would not have been used, with their piercing abilities, and probably the vibrato that comes along. We don't know for sure, but it seems a valid conclusion.
We also know that there were vastly fewer singers of high ability. Only limited numbers of singers would have been formally trained, and travel was not something that happened for many, so knowledge was not passed around quickly. But, at the same time, there is no reason to assume singers had not learnt about controlling breath flow via the abs and diaphragm, rather than trying to sing from the throat, as it were.
So, we could assume, most singers who sang in early performances, like those given by Monteverdi at Mantua, would have been people lucky enough to have a naturally pleasing sound to their voice who were musical and thus gained employment, or else trained for performing in local church choirs. The idea of someone training to get their "ah" sound just so, like happens today, would not have happened.
So, knowing that, we could guess the singers were pleasant sounding, but not highly resonant voices, probably with only light vibrato (or none), who were loud enough to be heard over a small band of instruments that most likely required regular breaks to retune. And sang in a room that held less than 100 people. A far cry from pretty much any modern production.
So, now that you have that overview, simplistic as it is, its time to start looking at the performance I heard.
So first of all, I need to set the scene a little. As I said earlier L'Orfeo was written by Monteverdi to be performed in the palace of the Dukes of Mantua, the Gonzaga family (Im sure you have heard of them). The audience probably totalled about 100 people. For this performance we were in the City Recital Hall, at Angel Place, a modern 1200 seating concert hall. We had seats in the front row, at the middle of the top balcony, so an excellent view and good sound, in a venue vastly larger than what Monteverdi had envisioned for his first true opera (and the oldest opera that we still have the score of)
When Monteverdi wrote L'Orfeo, he specified the instruments he wanted, and when he wanted them, but unlike modern operas (or even some of his later ones) he did not specify what he wanted to play what notes. This was common in the music of the era, to not set out the exact scoring, but rather the music and let the performers improvise around the music given. He specifies that he did wanted the players to perform with accuracy and taste, clearly indicating that he wanted the singers to be to the forefront, after all, their music is set out clearly. As a result, no 2 performances of Orfeo (even allowing for the different versions of the score that Monteverdi wrote) will ever be the same.
He also gave the singers in some cases two versions of their music, an ornamented aria, and a plain version of that same aria, to make it clear, where he wanted them to ornament and improvise, and where not to. He also made it clear that some performers should be expected to double up on roles, singing say La Musica and Eurydice, or similar. Bearing in mind there are 11 named characters, and a significant number of other solo performers who are not listed by name, this totally makes sense. In the production we saw every named soloist got a costume for his named role. If doing a solo as say a nymph or shepherd, they were in the costume of that. So, all up we had 13 singers, most of whom doubled as chorus when not soloing. Accompanying them was an orchestra of 23 performers on period instruments, several swapping between instruments as was traditional when first performed.
So, yes, as described earlier, we are in very much in the "authentic performance" style for this production. Although, as I mentioned, this venue is much larger than would have been contemplated for performing in by Monteverdi. Other things that will help to set the scene in this production. All the performers were dressed very much in modern dress, that in various ways reflected the nature of their role. I am not sure that white pants, shirts and waistcoats are appropriate for shepherds in the fields, but it did make then clearly not the infernal spirits they became later (in all black, with sunglasses) The singers themselves have a walkway behind the strings and harpsichords, with a big area out the front of the orchestra as well, in which to perform. There was no sets however, but the performers all acted out their roles fully, bringing to life the emotions of the characters of the story.
Our first performer we meet is La Musica to sing the introduction to the story and set the scene for what is about to happen. Sara Macliver was both La Musica and Eurydice, and she sang with her bright high soprano, clearly trying to reduce the resonance in her voice to bring it to an appropriate authentic sound. While she did not cut the vibrato out, it did become something that was only allowed to happen on occasion, and her voice was definitely missing some of the full sound it can have. Having said that, Sara does tend to sing a lot of baroque music, so clearly she is comfortable doing this, and she sang both roles with aplomb, her high bright sound only a little less bright than normal. She also never once sounded less than at ease and in charge of her music, making it her own.
As Orfeo (and the only singer to not double a role,) Markus Brutscher was new to me. He brings a big voice to this role, and inhabits it with considerable histrionic ability. He sang like I would expect an early music voice to sound, with reduced resonance and no vibrato, and with a substantial variation in sound through the range of his voice. It was not how I would choose to cast this role, but his is an impressive voice, and left me curious how he would sound in some of the big roles in say Verdi or Wagner. Would he be able to work his technique to sing in a true bel canto style still? If so, I would love to hear it, but as Orfeo, his voice left me wishing for more beauty and sweetness. This is after all a man who was supposed to be able to charm gods, men and beasts with the beauty of his music, yet I was left impressed but not in love with the sound. Yes, that could just be me, but as I said earlier, it is also partly a matter of taste. Having said that, it was an impressive performance, in a role that dominates this opera, much as say Siegfried does in the opera of the same name.
As the Messenger and Persephone, Fiona Campbell brought her big voice in to good use. As the Messenger, her voice did literally bring the music to a standstill as she revealed the bad news. This was a perfect piece of casting. Have a big voice come in that can cut across the celebratory mood and kill it with a blast of emotion as you bring bad news. Unfortunately, as an authentic performer, Fiona is less successful. Yes, she has a fabulous big voice, that is rich and full of emotion. But, her efforts to reduce her vibrato and reduce the resonance were less successful. Most of the time the vibrato was achieved and there was less sound coming out than she can bring, but it did tend to create a slight hootiness to her sound, and the straight tones also showed up some pitch waywardness on occasion. It was not often, but I noticed it, when I have never heard such from her before. It was certainly not enough to detract from what was a great performance, but I did notice it, which surprised me.
As both Plutone and Caronte, Wolf Matthias Friedrich brought a big dark bass sound to the roles. His was a more traditional voice, resonant and strong, but troubled in the lower notes for Caronte, leaving me to suspect that this role was just a touch too low for him. I did not notice this happening as Plutone. He brought distinct characterisations to each, which considering they were in scenes that followed each other, was quite impressive.
Other voices I need to comment on as great were obviously Tobias Cole as La Speranza (Hope) bringing a clear countertenor sound to what was sung at the original by a castrato, and Richard Butler, who as frequently the only bass singing in the ensemble had seemed to often be completely lost amongst the other voices, yet when he got his chance to shine as a soloist, proved he had a bass voice of considerable power and beauty, so I could only assume he had been told to keep the sound down in the ensemble scenes as a musical decision by Paul Dyer, the Musical Director.
Robert Macfarlane was impressive in his solo moments too. He brought a traditional bel canto tenor sound to his roles. Having said that, he brought a great deal of musical sensitivity with him, and I certainly expect to hear big things from him in the future, as he is clearly a young singer, with a big future.
Likewise Morgan Pearse impressed as Apollo, who as the god of music and also the father of Orfeo in this story, who brought the action to a close. His bright baritone seemed more than a little out of place, as he sang with a traditional bel canto style, full of resonance and vibrato. However, there was no disputing that having the two gods with the most resonant voices (Apollo and Plutone) would work as a casting device and also as a dramatic one, although, considering that, why not Orfeo as well, seeing as his voice is supposed to be supreme?
From the non vocal standpoint, the orchestra were great. All playing period instruments (or facsimiles), there was very little of the dreaded "period intonation" and a great sense of ensemble. Paul Dyer directed from the harpsichord (and organ), but the level of rehearsal and comfort was such that he rarely bothered to conduct his players, mostly just indicating his pleasure, or indicating specific stylistic touches he wanted.
So, what else to say? Well, artistically, this was an impressive production. Not a production to my taste, maybe, but a good performance of a work that is of great historic significance to music in general and opera specifically. It was given a performance that allowed it to speak to those who attended. And yes, I was pleased to go, and I can see the appeal behind it. It is also not something I would rush out to see again, simply because much of the music did not grab me as appealing. I admit it, I am more a fan of the big bold and spectacular, and I happily admit it. But, I also have to say, the chance to go see one of the seminal works of an artform I love was not something I could walk away from, and I did enjoy it. I just did not enjoy it the way I could have enjoyed, say Aida or Meistersinger. That in itself is not a criticism, just a reflection of taste.
I enjoyed a work not to my taste, and had plenty to think about and enjoy from the memory. I think that in itself, speaks volumes about the musical strength of what we heard.