Love and Laments: “La storia di Orfeo” with Philippe Jaroussky, Amanda Forsythe and Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble

We forget, too often, that love and grief are two sides of the same coin. If you love, you will, eventually, grieve; if you do not grieve, you have not loved.

With the legend of Orfeo and Euridice, we see that inevitability played out. The popular myth, featuring the demi-god of song and a beautiful nymph, proved inspiration for many retellings, including the first opera over 400 years ago.

Friends of Chamber Music brought “La storia di Orfeo” to Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kansas, performed by Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble with countertenor Philippe Jaroussky and soprano Amanda Forsythe.

Jaroussky, having played a variety of Orfeos throughout his career, put together this semi-staged operatic concert setting from different 17th century sources. He recorded much of the material on his 2017 album with I Barocchisti and soprano Emöke Baráth.

This colorful collage came primarily from three sources: Claudio Monteverdi’s 1607 “L’Orfeo,” Luigi Rossi’s 1642 “L’Orfeo,” and Antonio Sartorio’s 1672 “L’Orfeo,” each offering a different perspective on the legend.

Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble offered a level of performance to aspire to, with co-directors Paul O’Dette (chitarrone) and Stephen Stubbs (lute and Baroque guitar) and concertmaster Robert Mealy leading. The ensemble maintained a rich, cohesive sound and impeccable communication regarding shifts in tempo and dynamic. The continuo was no staid accompaniment, maintaining sensitivity to the vocal lines and emotional content as well as assertive strumming.

This concert was among a select handful of tour stops, which included sold out performances in Montreal and New York City. The Village Pres pews were crowded with early music enthusiasts, including many local practitioners in Kansas City’s budding period performance scene taking note.

Despite the large crowd, the musicians created an intimate setting for the work by playing each act of the two hour performance straight through without pausing for applause. The story is direct: they are to be wed, Euridice is bitten and dies, Orfeo sorrows and goes into the underworld to save her, he turns around too soon and she is lost forever.

At first, Orfeo and Euridice were giddy, exuberant, their voices bright and luxurious, with supple ornamentations. Forsythe’s ‘Mio ben, teco il tormente,’ by Rossi, was especially beautiful. Love, she reminds us, is not a comfortable feeling.

Tragedy, first at Euridice’s death and then again with Orfeo’s impatience, gave us extended laments of deep emotional response, as the vocal and instrumental lines intertwined in sighing phrases.

The minimal staging reinforced the stripped down story. Forsythe was effective in her performance: devastating at her death, serene as the shade of Euridice. Jaroussky was more overt: joy to sadness, hope to grief.

Monteverdi’s ‘Possente spirto’ received a shining performance from Jaroussky, and featured subtle grounding drone, beautiful lines from violinists Mealy and Julie Andrijeski and perfectly placed responses from harpist Maxine Eilander.

Instrumental selections reinforced dramatic points (and gave the singers a break), setting or extending the emotional tone, with work of the era from Dario Castello, Biagio Marini, Johann Rosenmüller and Agostino Steffani.

The ensemble also included Sarah Darling and Laura Jeppesen (viola), David Morris (viola de gamba, lirone), Doug Balliett (double bass), and Michael Sponseller (harpsichord and organ), a full consort of virtuosi.

Their encore, which Jaroussky introduced as “more optimistic,” was Monteverdi’s popular duet ‘Pur ti miro,’ from “L’Incoronazione di Poppea,” ended the performance with a flawlessly blended tone from the singers that faded to nothing with perfect serenity.

Reviewed November 24, 2019. “La storia di Orfeo” presented by Friends of Chamber Music at Village Presbyterian Church, Prairie Village, KS.

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

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