NEW YORK — It makes perfect sense that Orpheus was the first hero of the 400-year-old art form called opera. Laying aside the political and religious significance of the character in late Renaissance Italy, just listen to the feats of vocal sorcery that some singers conjure nightly; could the artist literally be descended from a muse? It’s not such a far leap.
The Muse undoubtedly favored French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky in devising “La storia di Orfeo,” an evening-length concert production that braids selections from three 17th-century Italian Orpheus operas. Tuesday night at New York’s Morgan Library, as Boston Early Music Festival finished up an American tour ahead of its annual Thanksgiving weekend shows at Jordan Hall, it may have been patchwork but the seams never showed.
One of the sources was Monteverdi’s 1607 “L’Orfeo,” the earliest opera still regularly performed today, with the others by the comparatively unknown Luigi Rossi (1647) and Antonio Sartorio (1672). The years have seen musical adaptations of the story take various liberties with the plot, including a meddling Venus (Rossi), a jealous Orpheus conspiring to have Eurydice murdered before a snake beats his hit man to the punch (Sartorio) and Hades as a corrupt company boss (“Hadestown,” playing several blocks away). This “Storia” did away with all of that, hewing close to the bare bones of the myth — boy marries girl, girl dies, boy tries to get girl back, fails — and featuring just Orpheus (Jaroussky) and Eurydice (a resplendent Amanda Forsythe) as singing characters.
Selections were smartly arranged so that neither singer had the lion’s share of the spotlight. The Sartorio score contributed the evening’s most fascinating music for Eurydice — contrast that with Monteverdi’s opera, where she barely sings — but it would probably be a hard sell for most of today’s companies, so it was wonderful to hear strong sequences given new life.
And what a Eurydice to bring them forward. With her clarion, blooming timbre and sublime control of dynamics and affect, Forsythe continued to prove herself one of the greatest early music sopranos in the country, if not the world; it’s our luck she’s local. It was an inspired stroke of staging to place her at the back of the steep Gilder Lehrman Hall for Eurydice’s appearance as a shade, from the Sartorio opera. All through the tremendous recitative and pleading aria, her voice seemed to echo from every corner.
Jaroussky made a power move in tackling Monteverdi’s “Possente spirto,” typically a tenor showpiece, as a countertenor. The reward was substantial; the top of his range was ethereal and airy, with no steely spikes. The small Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble, directed by Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, demonstrated a masterful grasp of dramatic tension in evoking the rolling Lethe waters.
On the “Storia” recording Jaroussky released in 2017 with soprano Emőke Baráth, a chorus interjects between arias and duets; personally, I prefer BEMF’s approach of spacing out the songs with instrumental interludes, which made Orpheus’s lonely journey feel more personal. It wasn’t hard to imagine a gray ferry crossing, long search for Eurydice, and argument with Hades overlaid on a drifting Rosenmüller sonata. The BEMF edition of the “Storia” also added a duet from Steffani’s “Orlando generoso,” the main stage opera at this summer festival; it was a stunner then, no less so now. Unlike most Baroque Orpheus operas, the “Storia” actually ended in tears, with Jaroussky’s Orpheus descending the scale into despair. However, to send the audience away on a happier note, Forsythe and Jaroussky drastically shifted gears — “finally, I get to see you!,” he joked — for a surprise encore of “Pur ti miro,” the rapturous love duet that ends Monteverdi’s “L’incoronazione di Poppea.” I may not have needed to hear it right after that trip through the underworld, but I’d pay to see that pair in “Poppea” — or anything, really. Catch them at home this weekend.
LA STORIA DI ORFEO
Presented by Boston Early Music Festival. At Gilder Lehrman Hall, The Morgan Library and Museum, New York, N.Y. Repeats Nov. 29 and Dec. 1 at Jordan Hall. 617-661-1812, www.bemf.org
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.