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American Record Guide (07-08/2016)

Pan Classics 

Code-barres / Barcode : 7619990103313


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Reviewer: John W. Barker


Stefano Landi (1587-1639) was a Roman by birth and career. He enjoyed the support of several powerful and culture-loving Roman families, for whom he composed numerous vocal pieces. Landi might well have been the personality who would make Rome the successor to Florence and Mantua as the commanding center for early experimentation in opera. Because of the fluctuating opposition of successive popes to theatrical performances, such was not to be, and it was Venice that would fill the vacuum. It was during an early period in Padua (his family’s home city), in about 1619, that Landi made his only venture into opera, composing La Morte d’Orfeo (The Death of Orpheus).

That places the work almost two decades after the first Florentine ventures treating the Orpheus story and 12 years after the trailblazing Orfeo of Claudio Monteverdi—who was 20 years older than Landi and would outlive him by 4 years. There is no evidence that Landi’s opera was ever given a staged performance. He was able to make a compensatory mark in Rome, however, with his important contribution to early oratorio in his Sant’Alessio (1631), labeled a dramma musicale an d actually staged privately. Landi’s five-act tragicommedia pastorale takes the Orpheus story to the final phase of the musical hero’s life, following what the Florentines and Monteverdi treated. When Landi’s work begins, Orfeo has already lost Eurydice definitively, and has foresworn women, dedicating himself to art in his pastoral world. Divine powers, knowing the terrible fate that awaits him, attempt to intervene; but that fate is sealed. The god Bacchus, outraged that Orfeo has renounced not only women but also wine (if not song), unleashes on him his frenzied Maenads, who tear him to pieces. His mother, the Muse Calliope, laments ; and Mercury shows Orfeo that Euridice (who appears only briefly) has drunk the memory-destroying waters of Lethe, and persuades Orfeo to do the same. (He is barred from the underworld by Caronte, who presses the Lethe draft with a drinking song.) Forthwith, Orfeo is welcomed in heaven by Jove himself and praised by happy choruses.

Though the plot is somewhat spare, the treatment is full of characters allowing a variety of personifications. There are 26 roles in the piece, and the 9 singers identified above take double and even triple assignments—and there are many choral functions: shepherds, satyrs, maenads, gods, etc. Landi’s music mostly follows the established idiom of monodic, proto-recitative declamation, but with flexibility in treating both serious and grotesque or humorous characters. Notable is the frequency of choral interjections, which do not follow Monteverdi’s use of madrigalian textures, but lean rather to more formal polyphony. (The choral sections in Sant’Alessio are also splendid.) Aside from a pair of cornets, the instrumentation is limited to strings and continuo—far less extensive than what Monteverdi allowed himself.

Recordings have been slow to catch up with Landi’s music. In recent years, at least two fine single-disc programs of his short arias and madrigals have appeared: one from Alpha (20: M/J 2004), the other from Musica Ficta (8021: S/O 2015). Landi’s Sant’Alessio had already been given its debut recording under William Christe for Erato (14340: M/A 1997). Unfortunately, that excellent presentation is long gone and has had no successor. La Morte d’Orfeo was recorded in 1987 (Accent, never reviewed in these pages). This Pan edition is a straight reissue of that 1987 recording.

It still stands as a wonderful realization of this fascinating and significant score. The solo singers are of that generation which would be making early-music history. To single out just a few, Elves is an appealing Orfeo. Countertenor Chance and tenor Jochens etch quite strong characters, as does bass Van der Kamp. The others are admirably versatile too. Perhaps the most musically impressive moments, though, are contributed by the chorus (prepared with the help of Erik Van Nevel), with wonderful vigor and color. Stubbs gives the same astute overall direction that he would later bring to his work with the Boston Early Music Festival—making me wonder why he has not brought this work to Boston.

The sound, nearly 30 years old by now, is as fresh and clear as ever. The album booklet gives good notes and a plot synopsis. The full Italian libretto is also given, but no translation—the one fly in the ointment. Otherwise this is indispensable for any serious collector of Baroque opera.

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