Orfeo and the power of music

David Fallis’s tenure as the Artistic Director of the Toronto Consort ended with today’s final concert performance of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, one of the most elaborate presentations I’ve ever seen from this group.

Don’t get me wrong. We were still in the presence of something intimate rather than overblown, the closest I’ve ever been to the Florentine Camerata in spirit if not in the actuality of the performance. For many of us, L’Orfeo was something we understood to be the first opera from our teachers & books. I had asked David Fallis whether there was anything symbolic in choosing this for his last undertaking leading the Toronto Consort.

But apparently not. He said he simply liked Monteverdi.

Okay. If there’s any extra meaning it’s in the joyful recognition that this opera is a celebration of the power of music. And that’s as true now as it was in 1607.

I invoke the Camerata as a society of friends devoted to the exploration of music and its possibilities. That’s what Monteverdi was doing and what the Toronto Consort continue to do. Jeanne Lamon Hall is small enough that you can see and hear every individual contributor (including the violinist for whom the hall is named, splendid sounding), sometimes making eye contact with singers & instrumentalists, and never in any danger that the performance would lose the sense of ‘consort’ as a verb. The formal moments –especially when the brass stood for their part in the opening Toccata or the beginning of the Third Act—were handled in such a way to remind us of music’s eternal ritual function in processions or public events. We were right on a kind of interface between music serving the drama (as we expect it to do in centuries of operatic composition) and music before the conventions of opera were drilled into us. We watched a kind of friendly negotiation, the music helping but always seeming to be freely offered rather than merely accompaniment in the service of story-telling.

Charles-Daniels-Credit-Annelies-van-der-Vegt (002)

Tenor Charles Daniels (photo: Annelies van der Vegt)

This was especially clear whenever we were watching & listening to Charles Daniels as Orfeo, a textbook demonstration of the notion that “less is more”. Sometimes he began with ostentatious pauses, sometimes singing with such softness as to compel us to pay extra attention. On occasion the voice rose in its intensity, particularly in that amazing moment in Act III when the Goddess Hope must leave him, in obedience to the dictum “abandon hope ye who enter here”; and as she abandons him, his response is unexpected and overwhelming. But he mostly sings very delicately, at times so softly as to surprise you, wonderfully expressive and always inhabiting the character.

And sometimes the greatest moments were collective utterances. Since I first studied this work decades ago, there have been parts I loved, that I eagerly anticipated in today’s concert. Every one of those was better today via Fallis, the Toronto Consort & their guest participants. I was wiping my eyes during the Toccata, smiling like a little kid listening to “Lasciate i monti”, and hollering at the top of my lungs at the end, grateful for all the many contributors. Katherine Hill as Music and then as Euridice gave us lovely moments that were wonderfully accurate, Michele DeBoer giving us a different coloration but every bit as effective as Proserpina. Laura Pudwell as Silvia, and as Speranza (Hope) brought her wonderfully rich sound, but blending beautifully when part of the chorus of shepherds, with Kevin Skelton, Bud Roach David Roth & Cory Knight. Roth as Pluto and Skelton as Apollo each were suitably godlike, while Bud Roach had some lyrical moments as well.

It was a hot afternoon in the space, yet everyone was intense in their focus, giving their all, Fallis included.  It felt like a perfect send-off, although Fallis will be back from time to time, not as the Artistic Director but still a member of the Consort.

G.Dou, Spitzenkloepplerin - G.Dou, Lace maker -

David Fallis (Photo credit: Paul Orenstein, digital work by Ross Duffin, background by Gerrit Dou 17th century, Dutch).

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