Notes and Editorial Reviews
Gorgeous, gentle and gratifying music from a contemporary of Monteverdi. Best listened to as an innovative gem, carefully conceived, realised and expertly performed
Orpheus was present, so to speak, at the birth of opera: for obvious reasons his was seen as a very suitable ‘story’ around which first to stitch together then to stretch outwards the intermedi of late sixteenth century Italian drama and music. By 1600 both Peri and Caccini had written and performed a Euridice; in 1608 came Belli and Chiebrera’s Orfeo Dolente; Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo was performed the year before.
Public appetite for the new medium and spectacle, the new musical idiom and its singers meant that any successor was likely to be popular. Landi, though, was only 13 when Peri’s work made its impact. Born in the more conservative Rome, he moved north in 1618, publishing a book of madrigals in Venice, where he was significantly influenced by the more adventurous Venetian composers. He held positions at Padua and it is probably for a wedding in that city that he wrote La Morte D’Orfeo in the following year. By 1620, though, Landi was back in Rome, where he lived and worked for the rest of his short life under what seems like sympathetic aristocratic patronage.
Unlike other contemporary treatments of the Orpheus myth, though, Landi’s La Morte D’Orfeo on this splendid and recommendable release from Akadêmia on Zig-Zag starts when Eurydice is already dead; it deals with the death of Orpheus, not with their relationship nor the first part of the myth and the descent into the underworld.
What you will hear is thus much less sprightliness than in Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo. Here is much more sombre and doleful music; the pace is duly restrained. Yet the atmosphere is neither manic nor fateful. Landi’s is a very human tragedy with much parody to lighten the seriousness.
La Morte D’Orfeo is also a work that respects the Florentine pastoral traditions from which the new genre of opera sprang at the turn of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in central and northern Italy… a division into five acts, a choral ensemble at the end of each, the grafting of lighter, comic characters into the story and a modernisation of Greek myth into a renaissance idiom. Above all, Landi achieves a felicitous and highly musical resolution of tensions between (local audiences’ familiarity with) Greek myth and contemporary literary styles, such as monologue, descriptive and emotion-rich ariosi and reflective and declamatory passages; many of these conventions are also developed (subverted, even) for musical and dramatic effect: Landi was his own person!
Tempting though it may be to compare La Morte D’Orfeo with the other works of the time – especially Monteverdi’s Orfeo, that would be unwise. So to do would be to miss the humour that Landi brings, the delicacy and subtlety of his often understated blend between melodic and tuneful ideas and the way he never misses an opportunity for character development – listen to the dialogue between Orfeo, Charon, Mercury and the eight lines Eurydice has in the whole opera in the second scene of Act V, for example. It is Monteverdian in its searing penetration. Yet much more restrained… rarely the same sprung rhythms of Monteverdi; never the dissonances. And – at least in this realisation – some interesting wind instrument colours from the likes of a sackbut and a dulcian.
The Akadêmia Ensemble under its director Françoise Lasserre sets out to achieve a blend of humanism derived from Platonism and Italian renaissance traditions. For them this means asceticism and exhilaration through scrupulous respect for the text in the interests of providing an emotionally uplifting musical experience.
On first listening, La Morte D’Orfeo might appear stronger on the ascetic than on the exhilaration. Until – that is - one allows the grace, gentleness and simple restrained parody which Landi brings to his version of the myth (he probably wrote his own libretto). Then the experience has a more profound impact; because it’s so reserved: just listen to the ending of the entire work… very soft and yet characterful. Its nuances, its melody and its chords stay with one for hours.
In their realisation, Akadêmia and Lasserre have added a number of instrumental pieces – in the absence of a prologue by Landi a sonata by Usper; and various battaglie and sonate by Landi’s contemporaries, as was the Venetian custom at the time. They are not distracting and do not hold up one’s sense of action and dramatic development.
With the exception of some very minor unidiomatic Italian phrasing in the first few numbers, the singing is excellent. Above all, they perform lyrically and without infusing spurious characterisation into their roles. Cyril Auvity (Orfeo) is particularly strong.
The instrumentalists clearly know and love this work – as we will come to do thanks to their persuasive, highly sensitive and utterly non-demonstrative playing. Akadêmia works as a whole, a cohesive team; their intention to expose, and revel carefully in, a highly perfumed and colourful corner of a very special garden has been well met in this gem of a performance.
It’s a good, clear recording, well-presented with a useful booklet, though the text of the libretto is a little small. Probably the best way to approach La Morte D’Orfeo is not as a historical curiosity to set alongside Landi’s contemporaries’ treatment of the Orpheus myth, but a beautiful, compelling work full of clarity and delight in its own right.
Mark Sealey, MusicWeb International