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The Shakespeare of Opera

Gardiner, who launched his career with Monteverdi, likens him to Shakespeare.

Why Monteverdi is more gripping and pertinent than ever.

Which music-theatre works of today will play to sold-out houses in the twenty-fifth century? Such is the challenge issued by Claudio Monteverdi, the former maestro di cappella at the Basilica di San Marco, in Venice, who, four hundred and fifty years after his birth, still has a knack for putting butts in seats. In October, the British conductor John Eliot Gardiner led vital performances of Monteverdi’s three surviving operas—“Orfeo,” “The Return of Ulysses,” and “The Coronation of Poppea”—at Alice Tully Hall. Once again, this ancient music worked its wiles on posterity. We thrilled to the lustrous brass fanfares, swooned at the liquid lyric lines, laughed at the bawdy jokes, and grew tense at moments whose outcome was not in doubt. When Orpheus cast his fatal glance back at Eurydice, there was an audible gasp from the audience, even though no dramatic situation could be less suspenseful.

Gardiner has likened Monteverdi to Shakespeare—a comparison that has become routine. Both artists give fathomless depth to familiar tales; both maneuver adroitly between high and low. In a way, Monteverdi’s feat is more remarkable, since opera had been invented only a decade before he first addressed the genre, with “Orfeo,” in 1607. The breakthrough comes in the aria “Possente spirito”—the plea for mercy that Orpheus delivers to Charon, the ferryman of Hades. Orpheus’ vocal lines are typical of the period, with florid ornamentation unfolding within narrow intervals. But the music moves at an unusually deliberate, meditative pace. Pairs of instruments play spectral ascending and descending scales, with the second part sounding as an echo. The harp echoes itself. Monteverdi is relaxing his grip on the narrative and delving deep into his character’s condition. This is the opportunity afforded by the evening-length structure of opera. The clock slows; the horizon widens; we go walking in the landscape of Orpheus’ soul.

Monteverdi’s resonance today is not just a matter of compositional mastery. His protagonists become expressive individuals, yet they inhabit a world where hierarchies are fixed and freedoms circumscribed. “Nothing delightful here below endures,” Apollo tells Orpheus, advising him to give up on life and go to Heaven. In “Poppea,” which is set at the court of Nero, the virtuous are punished and the wicked are rewarded. In Neronian America, such undeceived realism seems more modern than the idealism of so many Romantic-era operas. “The Return of Ulysses” is the happiest of Monteverdi’s stories, because its characters elude the grasp of fate. When Ulysses comes home to Penelope, he exits the nightmare of history.

Gardiner launched his career with Monteverdi. In 1964, while he was studying at Cambridge University, he organized a performance of Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers. From that event arose the Monteverdi Choir, which has been at the core of Gardiner’s activities ever since. Recently, he has been known more for his Bach—above all, for his epic traversal of the complete cantatas and for his formidable book “Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven.” This year, he returned to his point of departure, touring Europe and America with “staged concert” versions of the Monteverdi operas. He had recorded “Orfeo” and “Poppea” but had never conducted “Ulysses.” The stint at Tully, involving the Monteverdi Choir, the English Baroque Soloists, and nineteen solo singers, marked the end of a seven-month, sixteen-city journey.

At seventy-four, Gardiner is undiminished in energy. On this occasion, he served not only as conductor but also as co-director, alongside Elsa Rooke. The productions had no sets or props, but costumes, lighting, and stage movement gave sufficient life to the dramas. Singers appeared on all sides of the orchestra and often in its midst. They also popped up in the hall’s balconies and entered through the doors leading to the lobby. At times, as in Peter Sellars’s dramatizations of the Bach Passions, the instrumentalists were drawn into the field of action. Gwyneth Wentink, the harpist, had two memorable moments. During “Possente spirito,” Krystian Adam, as Orpheus, held his hand above Wentink’s instrument, as if summoning music from it. And in “Ulysses,” during the uproarious lament by the clownish Iro, Robert Burt, a veteran of the role, began frantically strumming the harp strings, prompting Wentink to bop him over the head with her score. Monteverdi’s quicksilver changes of tone, from comic to tragic and back again, were handled with fluidity and grace. “Orfeo,” in particular, was an organic, riveting piece of theatre.

Although Gardiner specializes in early music, he has also explored nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century repertory, from Beethoven to Stravinsky. His current approach to Monteverdi seems to reflect his wider experience. When, after Eurydice’s death, the chorus sings “Ahi caso acerbo” (“Alas, fell chance”), the affect was almost Expressionistic, with sharp attacks and flaring crescendos. In “Ulysses,” when the chorus comments on the gods’ decision to forgive the long-suffering hero the tempo slowed to a majestic crawl, with eerie harmonies foregrounded. Elsewhere, Gardiner did not skimp on the kind of rollicking rhythms favored by early-music revivalists such as René Jacobs and Jordi Savall; the chorus augmented the wedding rites of Orpheus and Eurydice with syncopated handclaps and foot stomps. A phalanx of cornetti and sackbuts provided glints of courtly splendor. Before the start of “Orfeo,” the brass players greeted the audience by blaring the work’s famous Toccata from a balcony above the lobby—a touch reminiscent of the outdoor Wagner fanfares that resound at the Bayreuth Festival.

Among the singers, the big discovery was the young Italian bass Gianluca Buratto, whose huge, rich, finely focussed voice made rows of music professionals sit up and scrutinize their programs. As Charon in “Orfeo,” Buratto unleashed stentorian, black-clad tones, suitable for the Commendatore in “Don Giovanni.” (A video clip available online hints that he is already hair-raising in that role.) He reaches down to low C, yet sings with plaintive beauty two octaves higher. His performance as the noble, doomed Seneca, in “Poppea,” was the vocal pinnacle of the cycle. Buratto clearly has a major career before him, one that may soon take him to the Met. His energetic banging of a hand drum during the “Orfeo” prelude suggested that he could find side work as a percussionist.

The cast had few weak links, though I’ve heard several of the parts sung better over the years. Adam tackled the tenor roles of Orpheus and Telemachus with unflagging vigor, despite some fuzziness in the lower register. Furio Zanasi, as Ulysses, lacked penetrating power but showed immaculate style. Hana Blažíková was refined and agile in the roles of Eurydice, Poppea, and Minerva; she also accompanied herself expertly on the harp when she took the role of La Musica in “Orfeo.” Marianna Pizzolato brought plushness of tone to Penelope in “Ulysses” and Ottavia in “Poppea.” The countertenor Kangmin Justin Kim gave a ferocious, gender-ambiguous edge to the decadent Nero. Anna Dennis made a sultry set piece out of Melanto’s aria in “Ulysses.”

At the end of “Poppea,” and of the cycle, came the duet “Pur ti miro” (“I gaze at you”)—the loveliest Monteverdi music that Monteverdi probably did not write. “Poppea” had its première in early 1643, during the Venice Carnival; the composer died that November. He may well have fallen ill while at work on the score, and turned to colleagues for help. In any case, scholars have detected the stylistic fingerprints of other composers in more than one passage of the opera. The late scholar-conductor Alan Curtis believed that “Pur ti miro” was the creation of either Francesco Sacrati or Benedetto Ferrari, who, along with Francesco Cavalli, were younger stars of the fertile Venetian scene. Gardiner insists that the duet is entirely Monteverdi. Uncertainties about authorship remind us that the cult of the individual genius long postdates Monteverdi. Seventeenth-century Italy witnessed a grand fusion of musical traditions, élite and popular alike, which powers the genre of opera to this day. What we celebrate in these three magnificent works is not only the genius of a man but also the genius of a place, the genius of an era. ♦

This article appears in the print edition of the November 13, 2017, issue, with the headline “Orpheus Resounding.”
  • Alex Ross has been contributing to The New Yorker since 1993, and he became the magazine’s music critic in 1996.

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