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It was a fitting capstone to the long and illustrious tenure of David Fallis as artistic director of the virtuosic, musically impressive, adventurous Toronto Consort. The ensemble gave a sterling performance of the first important, well loved opera, composed in 1607.
Opera was developed in the early seventeenth century with the intention of giving music the same expressive and persuasive force that it had in Ancient Greece. This meant attention to poetry, freely traveling melodies that were unchained from harmonic obligations to be more expressive because the chords were covered by the basso continuo, and a close relationship between music and words. For his secular music, Monteverdi followed and defended what he called the ‘second practice,’ essentially a style of writing that made expression of the text a higher priority than strict adherence to the rules of counterpoint. Specifically, there are dissonances in Monteverdi’s writing that are introduced in ways that break the rules. Since dissonance is the most expressive element in music, Monteverdi did this to achieve a richer expressive palette.
Orfeo, a Fable in Music, was written for the court of Mantua. It features discussions of the power of music to convince immortals and gods to do what they were refusing to do.
After a stirring rendition of the opening instrumental toccata featuring a guest ensemble (La Rose des vents) of trumpets and a fine cornettist (Matthew Jennejohn), playing confidently with their right hands holding the instruments and the left hands on hips, we heard the prologue, in which the allegorical figure Music (beautifully sung by Katherine Hill, whose voice seemed to have the swells and purity of a viol) announced her powers.
The full score exists for the opera, the instruments are specified, and all played well under the able leadership of Fallis, who conducted from one of the two organs, on which he played, as well as a harpsichord, in a sort of tag team arrangement along with Paul Jenkins. The many different and specific instrumental sounds are essential to convey the meaning of the music, so, for example, when Fallis played used the ‘reed-organ’ stop, that represented the underworld. The violins symbolized deities, the two theorbos Orfeo himself, and so on.
The centerpiece of the opera comes when Orfeo (performed by tenor Charles Daniels with delicate shading), having been forced to abandon Hope (strongly performed by Laura Pudwell), must sing his way past the ferryman who guards the gates of the underworld. As he sings each verse of the music, the orchestral accompaniment changes, and the instrumentalists were at their best in this section, which effectively makes the aesthetic argument for the new music-theatrical genre and the new musical style. The violins (Jeanne Lamon and Geneviève Gilardeau), saluting the ferryman as a powerful, immortal spirit, were spot on. The tempi throughout were well chosen and maintained by Fallis. The cornetto represented the sad plight of Orfeo, whose bride Euridice (the part sung beautifully, also by Hill) died of a snake bite on their wedding day. The brass showed the seriousness of the loss, a question of life and death.
Proserpine (expressively played by Michele DeBoer, whose vocal stylings made a good match with Daniels and Hill) sang to persuade her husband Pluto to show mercy to Orfeo and Euridice, which he did, stipulating however that Orfeo must bring her to the surface without once looking back at her. Spoiler alert! He looked back, and at this point the opera was semi-staged, Euridice walking off the stage, followed by Orfeo.
Not to worry, though, Apollo (beautifully sung by Kevin Skelton) gave his son Orfeo sound advice, then took him to heaven, a happy ending in the best Baroque tradition (and there is also an echo) and the duet at this point was impressively executed.
What does the allegory depict? The stability of life in the court of a wise, beneficent ruler? The power of music? Maybe it is an allegory for me. Like Orfeo, I, a widower, went a bit crazy, well okay, more than a bit, then a grief counselor and a thanatologist fell from the sky, not singing in Italian, but with good advice. Maybe it is an allegory for us all.
In a year of wonderful opera in Toronto, this production is certainly a fine demonstration of the talents of this ensemble, and the dedication and musical sensitivity of its leader David Fallis. The production is repeated at Jeanne Lamon Hall on May 26 at 8 p.m. and on May 27 at 3:30.
Review by Paul Merkley FRSC
Toronto ON May 26th 2018
Toronto Consort; Photo credit: Paul Orenstein
The Toronto Consort presents Monteverdi's Orfeo: a Fabulous Fable in Music