February 21, 2017

Philippe Jaroussky in the underworld: new album La Storia di Orfeo

The French countertenor retells the Orpheus myth through the music of three Italian Baroque composers.

In La storia di Orfeo, star countertenor Philippe Jaroussky realises a long-held dream as he retells the Orpheus myth through the music of three Italian composers of the early Baroque: Claudio Monteverdi, born exactly 350 years ago, and his younger contemporaries Luigi Rossi and Antonio Sartorio.

Monteverdi’s setting of the myth, L’Orfeo of 1607, is generally considered the first real opera. Over the subsequent centuries the story of Orpheus – the divinely gifted poet who descends to Hades to rescue his dead wife, Euridice – has maintained its hold on composers: among the notable operatic treatments of the myth are those by Gluck, Offenbach (a comic take) and, in our own time, Harrison Birtwistle, Philip Glass and Erato artist Christina Pluhar.

Jaroussky himself has starred in Gluck’s opera on stage and has taken the role of La speranza (Hope) in Monteverdi’s version, which was conceived with a tenor in the title role, though Rossi and Sartorio opted for castrati. In La storia di Orfeo, working with conductor Diego Fasolis, the musicologically-inclined singer has assembled a pasticcio of numbers by Monteverdi, Rossi and Sartorio that tells the entire story: the happiness on earth of Orfeo and Euridice, sung here by the Hungarian soprano Emőke Baráth; the death of Euridice, poisoned by a snake; Orfeo’s descent to Hades, which brings the deeply moving aria by Monteverdi, ‘Possente spirto’ in which the poet begs the boatman Charon to ferry him over the river Styx; his reunion with Euridice, and as they return to the land of the living, the sad moment when he loses her again forever.

As Jaroussky explains: “La storia di Orfeo is conceived as a kind of opera in miniature or as a cantata for two solo voices and chorus, and features just two characters: Orpheus and Eurydice. The three operas [Monteverdi, Rossi, Sartorio] focus on different aspects of the story …. The highpoint of Monteverdi’s work is an aria that has remained without parallel in the history of opera, the magical ‘Possente spirto’, which I have the temerity to perform here as a countertenor, for the first time on record.” 

Jaroussky had long sensed that ”I could hear my own voice in that aria and that I could bring another colour to Monteverdi’s Orfeo”. He feels that the character, in his various operatic incarnations, represents “something special for a singer … He is almost superhuman, his singing has a magical power and he inspired so many composers to write roles with a mystical, spiritual element and which express a particular sensibility. It is a matter of finding the balance in Orfeo: the demi-god, who has such power through music, and who is yet deeply human”

Jaroussky has sought to create “a real logic in the dramatic flow of the album … This is not just a series of extracts from operas with no connections between them.” Both Rossi’s opera, first performed in Paris in 1647, and Sartorio’s, first seen in Venice in 1672, are more elaborate works than Monteverdi’s, and very differently structured. For instance, Jaroussky has chosen Sartorio’s overture, which he describes as “the most sophisticated and developed” and has given Emőke Baráth an aria by Rossi – in Monteverdi’s version, Euridice does not have an extended solo. Jaroussky and Baráth both starred in the Erato recording of Handel’s Partenope, released in 2015, and Gramophone described the soprano’s performance as “exquisite, persuasive …. The Hungarian singer grows from tentative delicacy to ringing joy”.  Jaroussky chose her for the recording after hearing her in an opera by yet another contemporary of Monteverdi, Francesco Cavalli. “She has a feeling for this repertoire. Her voice is powerful and full of colour, yet fragile. She can give substance to Euridice.”

The French countertenor has already collaborated with the Swiss conductor Diego Fasolis and I Barocchisti, his Lugano-based ensemble, on Erato recordings of Handel’s Faramondo and Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. “Diego puts an emphasis on the opera’s italianità [Italian essence],” says Jaroussky, “… the flavour of text, the rhythm, the harmony, he supports the soloists and the chorus [the Swiss-Italian Radio Chorus], transmitting a positive energy. We have been working together for a long time … I can have a dialogue with him. He’s a conductor I trust.”

Philippe Jaroussky's new album La Storia di Orfeo is out 3 March, 2017.