Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble
with Philippe Jaroussky, countertenor
& Amanda Forsythe, soprano
Paul O’Dette & Stephen Stubbs, Musical Directors
Robert Mealy, Concertmaster
Orpheus and Philippe Jaroussky
By Stephen Stubbs, originally for Pacific MusicWorks
Orpheus, the demigod of song, is at the heart of opera – both at its birth and at various critical moments in its evolution. As a young lutenist in Europe in the 1970’s and 80’s it was my great good luck to be employed as an operatic continuo lutenist by Alan Curtis and William Christie. They became my mentors in Italian and French baroque opera respectively. Through them I began my acquaintance with Orpheus-based operas (Monteverdi from 1607, Rossi from 1647) and in another stroke of luck, I was asked to conduct my own first baroque opera which was Stefano Landi’s La Morte d’Orfeo (from 1619) first in Berlin, then for the Festival in Brugge and for a CD recording. Later, my group Teatro Lirico made the first CD recording of Sartorio’s Orfeo from 1673 and later still I conducted Gluck’s Orfeo in Bilbao, and finally his French re-working called Orphée in Meany Hall in 2016 (with Aaron Sheehan as Orphée and Amanda Forsythe as Euridice). I shouldn’t leave out another decisive piece of luck bestowed upon me by Orpheus -the GRAMMY award we won with the BEMF team for Charpentier’s La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers in 2014.
Suffice it to say, that Orpheus (or Orfeo as we know him in Italian opera) has been at the center of my professional activities for most of my career. It also means that I had a heightened awareness of the singers who could embody this exalted mythical musician in the various works mentioned above. Orpheus was sometimes a tenor (Monteverdi, Gluck – in the French version), but more often, he was embodied by that vanished voice: the “castrato”. Historical castrati most often sang in the soprano or mezzo-soprano range and were particularly valued for their virtuosity and almost super-human breath control. Obviously, most modern countertenors don’t fulfil that first basic necessity of the soprano range (most would qualify as altos), but then in the early 2000’s a major new talent burst onto the scene in the form of the young French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky. Beyond the sheer beauty of his voice and his highly-developed yet instinctive musicality, he possessed two even rarer qualities – the high tessitura of a mezzo-soprano, and the extreme virtuosity that could make sense of of the wildest melismas that any baroque composer had devised. Suddenly, the vast repertoire of the castrati had a living advocate that could bring it back to life in our time!
Meanwhile, at the Boston Early Music Festival, which Paul O’Dette and I have co-directed since 1997 (when we performed Rossi’s Orfeo with a female Orfeo – Ellen Hargis), we were following our own path of discovery, on the by-ways of operatic evolution from Italy to France and onward to Hamburg. At a certain point our attention fell on the vastly under-represented baroque genius of Agostino Steffani, and in particular on the incredibly musically rich score of his Niobe from his time in Munich (1688). The title role of Niobe was for soprano, so not difficult to cast – but the leading male role of Anfione was originally written for a German castrato who (based on the wickedly difficult music) must have possessed incredible virtuosity. It became clear that we needed Philippe for this role, or we should move on to another score. At this point Philippe had become a European superstar and was very busy. A meeting was arranged for Paul to meet with Philippe and show him the score. This was the decisive moment when Philippe said “this role is for me!”, and so we were able to win him for the 2011 Festival as well as the CD recording which has gone on to garner many prizes. Beyond the musical and critical success of this partnership, Philippe has become a trusted friend and colleague who has given us invaluable help and advice regarding other singers on the European scene. In return, we were able to introduce him to our leading soprano at BEMF, Amanda Forsythe, who has become an important duet partner for him as this program attests.
Philippe quickly realized that he had a unique opportunity to reintroduce the music and legacies of the great castrati of musical history and created many programs and recordings highlighting their achievements. Over time, he too realized that the figure of Orpheus – or as he has put it here, the “Storia di Orfeo” was central to operatic evolution as it concerned those castrati, and that in turn gave shape to the current program – even going so far as to take Monteverdi’s iconic tenor Orfeo and put his music up the octave to make it right for his voice. This has allowed a wonderful interweaving of Monteverdi, Rossi and Sartorio to tell the story, not only of Orfeo and his Euridice, but also of the entire Italian Seicento – the golden age of Italian baroque opera. This concert represents the flowing together of Philippe’s personal journey as a musician and his vocal partnership with Amanda Forsythe with the history of the Boston Early Music Festival as Paul and I have conceived of it since 1997. We are delighted to be all together to present the Storia di Orfeo.