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"Another entry of outstanding quality this month is Monteverdi: Orfeo (Lyrichord LEMS 9002). Gwendolyn Toth directs ARTEK in a playing that has soloists of real distinction, sound quality that is arresting, and instrumental playing of exceptional clarity and grace. The "early music" movement continues to be distinguished by controversy as it is by some truly exciting performances. This realization is not going to settle any of the more pungent discussions about continuo parts or even some of the embellishments. What it does, however, is give one of the most soundly reasoned arguments for its methods and results. Tenor Jeffrey Thomas, in the title role, is an almost ideal choice as both singer and interpreter. 'Rosa del ciel', his opening aria, shows his freshness of voice and his ability to carry a thrillingly long breath line in this joyous statement. Dana Hanchard, the Euridice who also sings the part of La Musica, is a worthy companion to Thomas in every way. She, too, shows that her commitment to the role is deep and results in some mind- and ear-catching music making. One thing that is immediately evident in this outing is the use of warm vibrato by the singers. Whoever got the idea that those vibratoless interpretations had any validity must be one of the most mis-guided people in all of music. Orfeo comes from a time and a place where the high intellectual standards were companion to a lustiness of equal strength. A voice devoid of warmth certainly does not depict that style. The other soloists [are] Jessica Tranzillo as Ninfa and Proserpina, Jennifer Lane as Messaggiera and Speranza and Pastore, Timothy Leigh Evans as Pastore and Spirito, Michael Brown as Apollo and others and the journeyman Paul Shipper, doing what he always does well as both instrumentalist and in three singing roles." (Daniel Cusick, Scranton Times, 9/3/95)

 

"A luminous account of this magical opera in its first American recording. Toth's fine period-instrument ensemble lets the music dance and breathe, yet her expansive, almost Romantic conception of the piece sacrifices no emotional detail. [Seven] singers share all 16 name parts and serve as the chorus. Tenor Jeffrey Thomas inhabits the central role; mezzo-soprano Jennifer Lane is especially touching as the Messenger and Hope. The resonance of the church where it was recorded meshes beautifully with Toth's open, flexible sound." (Heidi Waleson, Billboard, 9/30/95)

 

"The ensemble work, the instrumental playing, and certainly that vivid sense of living theater, puts this Orfeo right at the top of the heap." (Barrymore Lawrence Scherer, Performance Today on National Public Radio, 10/27/95)

 

"This first all-American recording of Claudio Monteverdi's 1607 masterpiece makes a good introduction to Lyrichord's high standards. ARTEK, an East Coast period instrument group, preceded the taping with four staged performances in New York. The orchestra is tuned in quarter comma meantone, and many of the singers, most of whom assume triple assignments, are familiar from their work in the Bay Area. American Bach Soloists' founder Thomas delivers a heroically stylish Orfeo, and the remaining soloists perform as if their lives (and afterlives) depended on it." (Allan Ulrich, San Francisco Examiner, 10/20/95)

"These two new recordings present very different qualities. Conductor Gwendolyn Toth, the moving spirit of Lyrichord's release, is one of the most prominent American specialists in early music. Her Orfeo was taped at New York's Church of St. Mary the Virgin, following performances in that space with seven singers and twenty-two players (including Toth at the keyboard instruments)...Both in her comparatively light-voiced cast and in her decisions regarding instrumentation, Toth goes for intimacy. Pick any recitative or ritornello and, chances are, she gives it a much plainer, sparer instrumental texture than what we hear from Jacobs in the same episode. Not unexpectedly, Toth's forces include significantly fewer string players than Jacobs's. In the New York City ARTEK ensemble (founded by Toth) the cornetto players are agile, the soprano recorders glitter, and the continuo team is superbly accomplished and unified. All the ornamentation (and this goes for the singers, too) is done with authority and class. One's admiration for the security of ARTEK's players doubles when considering that they are "realizing" their parts from facsimile pages of the 1615 score...What points up the difference in the Toth and Jacobs performances most strongly is pacing. One of Toth's strengths is that she never lets things lag. It is partly a matter of not repeating a particular instrumental passage that helps sustain the opera's "through-line" (Jacobs, on the other hand, takes advantage of every opportunity to repeat). But Toth also compels her Orfeo and many of the other singers to deliver their lines in a direct, natural, and conversational manner. By keeping the scale of her accompaniments down, she forces the listener to attend to Alessandro Striggio's glorious text (in keeping with the philosophy that dominated opera's early development)...Toth's cast makes one look forward to the cadences, which invariably signal new vocal embellishment. With five singers covering the choruses, Toth keeps those all-important episodes light-toned and vigorous, making for ideally exhilarating renditions of the lively shepherd scenes...La Musica's Prologue is splendidly performed in both of these recordings, and each soprano goes on to do lovely work as Euridice...Toth's soprano, Dana Hanchard, was born to sing Monteverdi (as those who have heard her Poppea in the theater can confirm). Along with an austerely beautiful timbre and unaffectedly graceful phrasing, she shows an instinctive feeling for imaginative, tasteful ornamentation. Artistry of a very high level manifests itself in such tiny details as Hanchard's trillo on "mesti" [sad], an unearthly sound that truly inhabits the word. The solo shepherds and nymphs sing more than adequately in both recordings...the Toth set boasts the finest voice among all the secondary roles in Michael Brown's mellow, musicianly "bari-tenor" Shepherd 3. No role in Monteverdi is more moving than that of the Messaggiera. Both Jennifer Larmore (Jacobs) and Jennifer Lane (Toth) are touching...the exhausted, empty sound that Lane brings to the end of the narrative and the final trillo at her exit are very effective...Of course, any Orfeo stands or falls with the title role. The choice here depends to a large extent on the type of voice one prefers in this music. Toth's Jeffrey Thomas is pure, light, and slender-toned...In keeping with the overall character of Toth's performance, Thomas is a quiet Orfeo, apparently saving himself for those few isolated moments in which he operates at maximum vocal strength. In the all-important florid passages he wins, hands down; technically, his "Possente Spirto" is stunning...Because these recordings grew out of stage performances, one expects nothing less than the dramatic commitment displayed by both Dale and Thomas; however, neither of these two thoughtful artists manages to leave his personal stamp on the role . Thomas comes closest in the challenging seven-minute recitative that opens Act 5; his line-by-line response to the text conveys Orfeo's despair with a depth of expression that eludes Dale (who has to deal with Jacobs's leaden pacing)...Both sets come with booklets containing a full libretto and translation. The supplementary material is helpful, with Harmonia Mundi's being heavier on musicological details. Lyrichord prints James M. Keller's wonderfully succinct introductory essay, followed by his informative and enjoyable interview with Toth." (Roger Pines, Opera Quarterly, Autumn 1996)

 

"No one knows exactly what the music sounded like at the first performance in 1607 of Monteverdi's Orfeo, but ARTEK and director Gwendolyn Toth have made a very good guess (with Jeffrey Thomas, Dana Hanchard, Jessica Tranzillo, Jennifer Lane, Timothy Leigh Evans, Michael Brown, and Paul Shipper; LEMS 9002). Here's the first opera to successfully solve the problem of combining the linearity of drama and the circularity of music, and ARTEK's performance somehow captures the sense of brilliant innovation that makes this a landmark work. Singers and instrumentalists perform in Renaissance-era meantone temperament, causing the major thirds and other common harmonic intervals to ring out with extra brightness. The singers perform with dramatic conviction and a unified approach. A generous assortment of percussion instruments adds extra spice to the orchestral effects." (On the Air Magazine, November 1995)

"Monteverdi's Orfeo, the oldest opera still in the repertoire, has not lacked for fine recordings in recent years. But this performance by the American group ARTEK has something interesting to say about the piece. Its best quality may be that it's not English--those Brits can be so terribly refined in 17th-century music that it loses all its juiciness. Jeffrey Thomas, well-known in Dallas because of his work with the Dallas Bach Society makes a surprisingly mellifluous Orfeo. Sometimes in music of the High Baroque, such as Bach's, his voice can seem colorless. Here it sounds rich and smooth, and Mr. Thomas isn't afraid of expressing passion. This may be the finest performance of the title role on disc. Gwendolyn Toth incites the rest of the cast to similar expressiveness. Sometimes this gets out of hand, but it's refreshing to hear a deeply emotional performance of this heartfelt music. The instrumental work is also appealing. The bass wind instruments make a particularly imposing sound while accompanying the dwellers in the underworld to whom Orpheus appeals for the return of his beloved Euridice." (Lawson Taitte, The Dallas Morning News, 11/19/95)

 

Notable Recordings of the Year: Opera -- "First place is shared by two superlative recordings of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo. This "fable in music," first performed in 1607, is at once the culmination of Renaissance humanism and the fountainhead for all that we have come to call "opera." In its first American recording, Gwendolyn Toth and ARTEK, a New York City-based ensemble of period instruments, bring vivid theatricality to this intoxicating, bittersweet confection of pastoral longing and vanity (Lyrichord Early Music Series 9002). Soprano Dana Hanchard, in the double roles of Eurydice and La Musica, is a creamy-voiced delight. Jeffrey Thomas sings the title role with appealing naturalness." (Charles Michener, The New York Observer, 12/18/95)

 

"Whether or not one considers Claudio Monteverdi's La favola d'Orfeo the progenitor of all modern opera, there is no denying the importance of the work as an early, highly popular representative of the genre. Today we take such things for granted; in 1607, it was a unique, new art form. I can't say that I honestly enjoy the music of Orfeo for very long; I find its style and substance quickly wear thin. But the work is surely important for its historical value, and this recording of it, done on period instruments, is just as surely among the best you can buy. The singing is first-rate, the interpretation is as lively as any conductor can make of it, and the sound is exceptional. In fact, the sound may be the audiophile's first consideration. It is realistically balanced, with the orchestra appearing in front of the singers for a change. It has good depth of image and good stage presence. And it is warm, clear, and natural in tone. In short, if the music appeals to you, this set should fit the bill." ($ensible Sound, 1/96)

 

"L'Orfeo had its premiere on February 24, 1607, not in a theater but in a small galleria in the palace of the Gonzaga Dukes in Mantua. Nowadays the work bounces from concert hall to opera house to church sanctuary. These new CD releases represent performance space extremes. Director/conductor Gwendolyn Toth fills a relatively small, resonant space with a small orchestra and a handful of singers; as a result, her players achieve a natural, improvisational quality. Toth's sense of the work's poetic structure allows her to match changes in mood and meter with appropriate musical gestures, cadences, and instrumentation. Tenor Jeffrey Thomas as Orfeo emotes well and conquers the role's low-lying tessitura with grace...Mezzo Jennifer Lane as the Messenger sounds anguished by the bad news she bears. Some of the best work overall appears in the choral segments, often performed a cappella." (Susan Kerschbaumer, Opera News, 2/17/96)

"A new recording by ARTEK, a New York ensemble directed by Gwendolyn Toth (Lyrichord LEMS 9002, two CD's), captures much of the work's vitality and depth, and if it has some shortcomings -- a minimal cast doubling on roles, for example -- it nevertheless boasts a superb Orfeo in Jeffrey Thomas. Dana Hanchard and Paul Shipper also bring character to their roles, but the real attraction is the instrumental playing. These players have a flair for ornamentation, and even when they go over the top, the results are compelling." (Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 5/9/96)

 

"Since Monteverdi left only a list of instruments with almost no orchestration indicated, the conductor has many choices to make in L'Orfeo. Both Toth and Jacobs [Concerto Vocale] realize the piece effectively, and both add ornaments to agreeable effect. Their instrumental groups play with assurance, again probably due to the staged performances. Now to some differences. Much of the opera weights on the title role. Both Jeffrey Thomas (Toth) and Laurence Dale (Jacobs) have a fine grasp of the role, but I would give the edge to Thomas, whose coloratura and general timbre are more preferable to his rival's. I also prefer Toth's slightly quicker pace overall; Jacobs sometimes lets the music sit still." (Paul L. Althouse, Stereophile, 5/96)

 

"This recording of Orfeo is the first produced in the United States. It was recorded in November 1993, following 4 performances given in a church in New York.  Gwendolyn Toth, who directs the ensemble ARTEK, did not have the means either financially or spatially to produce a true baroque spectacle, and had to be satisfied with a relatively reduced size cast.  Is it for this reason that this version could be qualified as 'Minimalist'?  It is nothing of that, and one can only be agreeably surprised by the sound thickness and the variety of timbres of the Artek ensemble, which uses period instruments.  It is true that the recording profits from a reverberant environment which amplifies and enriches sonorities.  The initial Toccata is also one of the most arresting in the discography, with the trombones and cornettos accompanied by drums. Seven artists covered the fifteen singing roles in the score, a frequently adopted solution and one which does not shock us here more than elsewhere.  The essence is that one believes in it, and, in fact, the emotion settles with the entry of Musica, arriving at her 'beloved Parnassus', to present us the history of Orfeo.  It grows throughout the dramatic progression concocted by Alessandro Striggio, in particular at the time of the intervention of Messaggiera, culminating in the Underworld scenes.  The tenor Jeffrey Thomas, famous in the United States as one of the best singers of early music, assumes the role of Orfeo without fault. Equipped with a pleasant timbre and a light vibrato, he instills a palpable emotion in his opening aria 'Rosa del cielo', anthem to the sun, and only the vocalises of the 'Possente spirto' lead him to his limits.  The other soloists are irreproachable, in Dana Hanchard, tested interpreter of Monteverdi, as a moving Euridice; Jennifer Lane as a  touching Messagiera; Jessica Tranzillo, as a convincing Proserpine; and Paul Shipper, as a frightening Charon...On the whole, a version which illustrates with wonder the dual membership of Orfeo in the world of the Renaissance and the world of the Baroque, and which deserves to be remounted."

(Le Magazine de l'Opéra Baroque, September 2003)

 

"The New York early music group ARTEK, under Gwendolyn Toth, presents a warm and resonant version of this 1607 opera, the genre's earliest masterpiece. Fast-paced, immediate and lively, the performance on original instruments captures the work's drama and musical invention, with Jeffrey Thomas a thoughtful Orfeo and Dana Hanchard an expressive Euridice." (NOW Magazine, July 25-31, 1996)

 

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