Live review: L'Orfeo – Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Goddesses reign supreme, but this Orpheus fails to charm with his music.

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Wolf Matthias Friedrich as Plutone and Fiona Campbell as Prosperina. All photos by Steven Godbee.
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Markus Brutscher as Orpheus and Sara Macliver as Eurydice
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Tobias Cole as La Speranza and Markus Brutscher as Orpheus

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City Recital Hall, Angel Place, September 19.

Paul Dyer has said that presenting Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo was a long-held dream of his. The reality is something he and the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra can be proud of.

Working from a new edition by Italian harpsichordist Rinaldo Alessandrini, who has made an exemplary recording of this early Baroque opera, Dyer led cast and orchestra with his usual exuberant flair in lively wedding scenes and sinfonias, toning it down for sombre moments of reflection and tragic blows. 

The semi-staged production required little more than a few choice costumes and some basic choreography, but the ABO’s familiar flock of theorbos, recorders and harpsichords gave the small chorus of nymphs and shepherds plenty of exotic scenery to frolic (or at least shuffle) through. 

Launching into the majestic opening cantata with an atmospheric cymbal crescendo was one of many imaginative details that really put the Brandenburg touch on this performance. (Though they would do well to retire those irritating new-age chimes!) Strings and winds were the most beautifully blended I’ve heard from the ABO all year, and brass acquit themselves admirably with bright, unblemished interjections – those pesky Baroque trumpets and sackbuts don’t always sound completely house-trained from one concert to the next. 

The madrigal-sized choruses were sometimes uneven or drowned out by the orchestra, but of the supporting cast baritone Morgan Pearse impressed as the sun-god Apollo in rich, robust tones (and glittering gold shoes and jacket to boot). 

Sara Macliver was statuesque in a regal gold and red gown – a fitting embodiment of La Musica (the spirit of music) in the prologue. With light, flexible soprano voice she related the ancient myth of Orfeo: a loving husband who uses his divine musical gifts to persuade Plutone, king of the underworld, to return his wife Eurydice (Macliver) to the land of the living.

As for mezzo Fiona Campbell as friend of the bride: no bearer of bad news has ever sung so beautifully. Her voluptuous tone, fluid yet thoughtful ornamentation, and commanding stage presence as she tells Orfeo of Eurydice’s death had me holding back tears. She was equally riveting as Proserpina, the queen of the underworld, moved by Orfeo’s plight and devotion. 

Maybe she was convinced, but I wasn’t. The demanding title role requires a tenor who can emote powerfully with a voice of searing beauty. I listened closely to German import Markus Brutscher in the hope of gleaning some clue as to why Dyer chose him, but the thin voice and awkward, minimal acting held no trace of Orfeo’s superhuman artistry.

The obbligato of duo cornetts and violins eclipsed the singer as he made his case to Plutone (a stentorian, silver-haired Wolf Matthias Friedrich, accompanied by shivering other-worldly chords from Laura Vaughan’s rare, 14-string lirone). Luckily, the delicate strains of Marshall Maguire’s Baroque harp, standing in for Orfeo’s trusty lyre, expressed the emotions Brutscher couldn’t summon in song.

L’Orfeo runs until September 26 in Sydney, with a performance in Melbourne on September 23.

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Wolf Matthias Friedrich (Pluto) and Fiona Campbell (Proserpina). Photo by Steven Godbee.
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