There's no dearth of fine Orfeo recordings on the market: Gardiner's (Archiv) is thrilling in a big, dramatic way, with a large-ish chorus; Pickett's (L'Oiseau-Lyre) uses a peculiar but interestingly grand and sharp-edged brass complement. As far as instrumental and choral forces are concerned, this new performance strikes me as ideal: the chorus is 14 strong, and there are eight brass players and 18 other instrumentalists. So the celebratory shepherds in Act 1 sound like real pals of the happy couple's--and they're having a grand old time. The instruments make a glorious noise in the final Moresca, and they're properly ceremonial and spooky in the odd fanfare music at the start of Act 3. Furthermore, the voice/instrument balance is just right, with the violin lines clear and effective, noticeably commenting on and joining in the action, with the brass adding brilliance when it should. Nothing sounds bloated or undernourished and the drama plays out naturally.
Harpsichordist-turned-conductor Emmanuelle Haïm's leadership is quick and dramatic. From Musica's opening moments in the Prologue--gloriously sung by Natalie Dessay--we note the use of expressive embellishments. They're not as florid throughout the rest of the opera, but Musica (correctly) sets the tone. The pastoral scenes have a lovely clarity and carefree quality, and the dances are truly energetic and joyous. And this honesty and directness is a delight throughout.
Ian Bostridge's Orfeo is not as "early music" sounding as many; he uses vibrato, and sometimes his intensity, particularly in his grieving scenes, creates sounds that are not beautiful. But with his spontaneity--characteristic of the whole set--he's a flesh-and-blood Orfeo, almost unique among the competition. His huge third-act scene goes splendidly, complete with precise divisions and that remarkable "goat trill" Monteverdi asks for. Alice Coote's Messenger is similarly biggish-voiced, and her unhappy task is very moving. (Catherine Bott, for Pickett, remains the one by which Messengers should be judged--hushed, almost paralyzingly slow and sad.) Patrizia Ciofi, with little to do as Eurydice, is lovely, while Sonia Prina's Speranza is a ray of light. The Prosperina and Plutone of Veronique Gens and Lorenzo Regazzo make them seem like a real couple. Christopher Maltman makes hash of Apollo's florid music near the opera's close, but then he settles in authoritatively as he and Orfeo ascend.
The instrumentalists are superb, playing without some of the rasp (in the brass) that can be both colorful and irritating on other recordings. Haïm uses concert pitch A=465, which is about a half-tone higher than we're used to: Could this add to the urgency of this reading? While it tends to lighten the lower-voiced parts, it does add sheen to the higher ones. In short, this set is a treasure, giving us an Orfeo that seems anything but a museum piece.
--Robert Levine, ClassicsToday.com [4/15/2004]
Reviewing original release