Review: York Early Music Festival: I Fagiolini in Monteverdi’s Orfeo, Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York, July 5

FORTY-TWO years into its existence, York Early Music Festival has chalked up a first: opera. Puppet opera, indeed, in Monteverdi’s great ‘favola in musica’ Orfeo.

It made a stunning opener to the 2019 festival and was rapturously received by an overflowing house.

I Fagiolini, led by Robert Hollingworth, here burnished its already huge reputation for dramatising Monteverdi’s madrigals.

With its soloists and orchestra augmented by the English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble and nine singers from the University of York, this memorable evening was directed by Thomas Guthrie. In truth, these forces were so well-drilled that they barely needed a conductor at all.

The puppets representing Orpheus and Euridice were dressed in white and held on a short rod by the soloists, Matthew Long and Jenni Harper respectively, with assistance in moving limbs from puppeteers Alex Newton and Laura Caldow.

All the remaining singers held identical masks, with shawls draped over their arms to represent torsos. Under Natalie Rowland’s discreet lighting, and with all the live performers in black, these white masks quickly caught the eye, so that the humans behind them soon faded from view.

The action was confined to a great H-shaped stage, with the players seated within its arms, which were linked by a catwalk towards the audience. Long’s intense Orpheus was tirelessly energetic, with Harper’s sweet-toned Euridice an engaging contrast.

There were useful cameos from Ciara Hendrick as Music, Christopher Adams as Charon and Charles Gibbs as Pluto.

Echo effects from the foyer and processions through the aisles further swept the audience into the action. The orchestra was crisp, lively and succulent; the brass was thrilling. Sensational. More opera, please.

Martin Dreyer

Review: York Early Music Festival, Alamire, St Michael le Belfrey, York, July 6

ALAMIRE presented a fascinating cross-section of the unaccompanied choral output of Tudor composer Thomas Tallis.

Their director David Skinner, a considerable Tallis scholar, selected an illuminating programme highlighting Tallis’s consummate response to the constantly changing religious landscape of the period.

In the first half, works with Latin texts such as the opening Videte Miraculum proved Tallis’s mastery of polyphony, while the simpler, lilting, homophonic O Nata Lux was equally effective.

Reduced from the sonic splendour of Alamire’s full complement of 12 voices, only five blended beautifully for In Ieiunio Et Fletu. Miserere Nostri –_despite its compositional ingenuity described by Skinner – sounded harmonious and totally natural.

After the interval, everything was in English. The early Gaude Gloriosa was recently discovered by Skinner to also accommodate the more forthright, pugnacious words of See, Lord And Behold, by Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s last queen. The choir gave this their all: it was refreshing to hear this piece delivered with such gusto!

Several works influenced by the Anglicising zeal and pious austerity of Edward VI were also here, like the moving, quiet sophistication of O Lord, In Thee Is All My Trust.

Required to provide church music for the radically different conceptions of all four monarchs from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I, Tallis had to re-invent and adapt his art many times. This enjoyable traversal of his output thus admirably suited the theme of this year’s York Early Music Festival: “Innovation”.

Robert Gammon