After almost 400 years, you might think Monteverdi's L'Orfeo would have lost its luster. But in the right hands it can still be deeply exciting, allowing you to relive the birth of an electric and emotionally charged new art form. Emmanuelle Haïm's new L'Orfeo, starring Ian Bostridge, is that kind of experience. It combines truly electric instrumental playing with committed, daring performances to great effect, making for one of the most enjoyable opera recordings to come along in a while.
Haïm, who has the Midas touch for Baroque opera, leads this performance with infectious energy, perfect tempo, and dramatic timing. Le Concert d'Astrée, along with Les Sacqueboutiers, turns in a spirited but still clean reading of the score. Bostridge is an ardent Orfeo, revealing a more dramatic aspect to his singing that is very welcome; he has also makes an admirable stab at the idiosyncratic vocal ornamention of the period. Natalie Dessay throws aside notions of the white-voiced early music singer, and tears into La Musica's prologue with real flair. Véronique Gens shines in her brief moments as Proserpina, and Patrizia Ciofi manages to be genuinely entrancing as Euridice, even though she only appears a few times in the score. The supporting cast is uneven; Christopher Maltman is outstanding as Apollo and one of the "Pastori," but many of the other voices are weak and unfocused. However, when they all join together for ensembles, they hit the nail on the head. In general, sticklers for historically "accurate" vocalism (a sticky matter anyway, since we have no recordings to confirm the conclusions of scholars) will likely be dissatisfied with this recording. But those who care more about dramatic effect will find a lot to enjoy.
There are a couple of good L'Orfeos already on the market, notably John Eliot Gardiner's from the 1980s. It may actually be cleaner in a few spots than this recording. But no one has ever captured the urgent combination of drama and music that was the motivating force behind L'Orfeo any better than you'll hear on this disc.