I Fagiolini’s Orfeo: London Festival of Baroque Music

first performed in 1607 at the Gonzaga court in Mantua is, in formal and
stylistic terms, derived from earlier models: the madrigal, balletta, the
intermedi, the pastoral tradition. But, it is also one of the boldest
experiments: a favola in musica (a play in music) lasting 90
minutes, its units bound together by repeating ritornelli – an
extraordinary conception in its day.

Robert Hollingworth directed a performance which urged us to remember what
a thrilling occasion the first performance of Orfeo – in the Sala
Nuova, 30 metres long and 7 metres wide, of the Gonzagas’ ducal palace in
Mantua – must have been. But, his players and singers also made us aware of
the musical roots of the opera, commencing the performance with a madrigal,
a reminder of the aesthetics of the seconda prattica style – with
its emphasis on melody over harmony, and the union of word and tone – from
which opera sprung.

At first, I wondered at the appropriateness of adding a ‘preface’ to the
ceremonial toccata with which the opera begins, but as the performance
continued I appreciated the way the opening madrigal served to reinforce
the lack of stylistic division between genres, as elements of the madrigal
idiom appeared in the declamatory arioso, in the recitative and in the more
discrete formal dances and songs. The latter, in which the voices came
together in ensemble or chorus, were vivid portraits of joy and despair:
the Act 1 balletta ‘Lasciate i monti’ skipped in pastoral sunshine, while
the chorus of lamentation which closes Act 2 was weighted with despondent

The introductory toccata itself, a gloriously rich explosion of brass,
immediately translated us to a world of courtly decorum and majesty. As the
musicians took their seats – some in front of the stage, some behind and
raised, replicating the placement which made the instrumentalists visible
at the first performance – the singers processed in. Hollingworth, who had
joined the madrigalists at the start, now took his position behind the
organ, and it did not seem fanciful to envisage the hierarchically arranged
horse-shoe configuration of the original audience, with the Duke elevated
on a balustraded dais. The historical echoes must have been even more
resonant when Tom Guthrie’s semi-staged production was first performed by
these artists in 2015, in a ‘private’ performance for Martin Randall Travel in the scuola of San Giovanni Battista,

However, I’m not sure if simply having singers enter from the rear, or sing
from the gallery, or assume a variety of positions on the platform really
produces a performance which can be genuinely be described as
‘semi-staged’? I may be being unfair to Guthrie, though, for St John’s does
not afford much opportunity for adventurous staging and the sight-lines are
not good (so it wasn’t a good idea for La Musica to begin the Prologue
seated on the floor, removed from view).

Monteverdi employs a large orchestra and the playing of I Fagiolini and The
English Cornett & Sackbutt Ensemble was stylish and incredibly
accomplished. Whether it was the piquant descant recorders colouring the
repeating Act 1 balletta with squeals of delight; the rhapsodic theorbo of
Eligio Quinteiro underscoring the emotions of the text; the fleet, feathery
decorative echoes of violinists Bojan ?i?i? and Jorge Jimenez in Orfeo’s
impassioned plea ‘Possente spirto’; or the blazing richness of the cornetts
allied with the warm blend of sackbuts singing in consort, the instrumental
playing was an integral element in the drama – commenting, reflecting,
building tension, celebrating.

In the title role, Matthew Long wonderfully illustrated the rhetorical
eloquence of Monteverdi’s ‘musical speech’. Initially I wondered if his
tenor would acquire sufficient range of colour to convey the music’s
emotional diversity, but in ‘Possente spirto’ he probed every word for
nuance and shade, showing sensitive appreciation for the mannerist
aesthetic in which the style takes the text as the point of departure. Long
treated the declamatory rhythms with just the right touch of flexibility,
the slightest looseness deepening the expressive gestures of the vocal
melody. The way in which Long gradually opened Orfeo’s heart to the
listener, creating ever more heart-tugging empathy, was very impressive.
Rachel Ambrose-Evans sang with a clear, attractive tone, but her Euridice
was less strongly defined dramatically.

I noted the vivacity of baritone Greg Skidmore’s response to situation and
text when reviewing a recent concert by

Ex Cathedra

, and here, once again, Skidmore had considerable stage presence,
distinguishing effectively between the Infernal Spirit and the Shepherd.
Christopher Adams’ Carone plumbed cavernous depths complemented by the
dark-toned trombones, while Charles Gibbs was a regal Pluto, patently
enjoying the affectionate attentions of Clare Wilkinson’s expressive,
elegant Proserpina.

Hollingworth was intensely involved in all aspects of the musical drama,
moving from the organ to join a madrigal or chorus, returning to the
keyboard to supplement the musical mood with a percussive adornment. He
epitomised the relaxed flow of the performance as a whole, further
emphasising the astonishing formal synthesis of Monteverdi’s innovative and
marvellous opera.

Claire Seymour



I Fagiolini/The English Cornett & Sackbutt Ensemble

Robert Hollingworth (organ & director)

Thomas Guthrie (stage director)

Orfeo – Matthew Long, Euridice – Rachel Ambrose-Evans, Messenger/Silvia –
Ciara Hendrick, Ninfa/Proserpina – Clare Wilkinson, Speranza/Shepherd –
William Purefoy, Apollo/Shepherd – Nicholas Hurndall Smith, Caronte –
Christopher Adams, Plutone/Shepherd – Charles Gibbs, Shepherd/Infernal
Spirit Greg Skidmore.

St John’s Smith Square, London; Thursday 18th May 2017.

image_description=I Fagiolini and The English Cornett & Sackbutt Ensemble at the St John’s Smith Square
product_title= I Fagiolini and The English Cornett & Sackbutt Ensemble at the St John’s Smith Square
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: I Fagiolini

Photo credit: Russell Gilmour