Rare power with old passion

La Favola d'Orfeo New York's Ensemble for Early Music and Grand Bande City Hall Concert Hall February 4.

THE two-edged joy of Monteverdi's early stage pieces is that they can be performed in the widest latitude of styles, and they are astonishingly modern.

Monteverdi himself sanctioned the style changes. Rather than specifying any particular one of the 40 instrumentalists, Monteverdi usually specified a group (wind, string, chord-playing). And Orfeo, not being an actual opera (there were no theatres in Mantua) is basically a concert piece, so the singers must still be actors.

That power was felt to the fullest with Frederick Renz's. Renz is a noted scholar of 17th Century music, and his ensemble of singers and instrumentalists gave what seemed to be one of the authentic renderings and what certainly was a passionate reading.

The orchestra was a sensitive gathering of strings, old-style trombones (one of which unfortunately squawked through his solos), a double-harp and several lutes. The singers, most of them doubling their roles, enjoyed a variety of styles.

If one had to criticise anything here, it was this very diversity. No, we had no castrati gracing City Hall stage. But the ladies showed an innate understanding of Monteverdi lyricism.

Tamara Crout, as Euridice, ''Music'' and ''Hope'' used every kind of trill, break and musical ornamentation in the coloratura repertory. Monteverdi probably let his singers extemporise as they wanted. Ms Crout knows her art brilliantly. But her very brilliance perhaps precluded an honest division of dramatic characterisation.

With Karen Clark Young, we had a mezzo of more dramatic difference, a voice which could be literally graceful as Prosperine or giving an impassioned song-speech as the Messenger giving her sad news to Orfeo.

Orfeo himself has the most dramatic arias, and in Mark Bleek, one had a most passionate singer. No excesses, virtually no ornamentation (save for voice-breaking), and the most highly-coloured duets with orchestral soloists.

This was the most surprising part. I am accustomed to raising the volume when listening to Orfeo. In the flesh, the orchestra initially sounds too soft, and one must adjust the ears for maximum enjoyment.

This is hardly difficult. The Arts Centre melodic organ and harpsichord with the double-harp, gave harmonic background, while instruments like the archlute played solo work of true Baroque drama.

The result was a work of rare power. One had to know the words for the long monologues to make sense. But the choruses and solos had the passion from a 350-year-old composer for all periods.