Song of Orpheus review: “The music speaks for itself”

“Song of Orpheus is the newest streaming program by the Cleveland-based Les Délices. It revels in the enduring myth, one that continues to be visited over the centuries by composers across the musical spectrum. The music is beautiful and speaks for itself. French Baroque rarities by Rameau, Dandrieu and Courbois dance with subdued, exuberant and often tremulous elegance around the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice.

The program opens with a new, yes new, trio sonata “By much love betray’d” by composer Jonathan Woody, its title derived from John Dryden’s translation of Virgil’s Georgics. Seeped in the baroque tradition, it is essentially a tone poem in three-parts, a work clearly evoking the pivotal moments in the life of Orpheus: receiving the lyre from Apollo, his fateful turn to gaze upon Eurydice in the underworld and finally his death by the Maenads. On-screen titles for each part make it easy to follow.

Les Délices. Viola de gambist Rebecca Reed, harpsichordist Mark Edwards-harpsicord, violinist Shelby Yamin, Artistic Director and baroque oboist Debra Nagy and soprano Hanna De Priest performing Rameau’s Orfée. Photo: Erica Brenner.

It’s a lovely and stirring composition that showcases the high level of music making common to the players. Woody’s introduction, though eloquent, invites distraction and would have been better utilized as program notes.

Hannah De Priest is utterly beguiling singing Rameau’s “Orphée”. The soprano’s creamy sound is impressively clear with ornamentation scaled to the intimacy of the piece. Without a moment of fussiness in her approach, there is only lovely singing and emotional insight. In addition to her vocal gifts, De Priest delivers the news with aplomb. Her brief comments remind us of the universality and overriding irony of the legend. She increases our anticipation of the work reminding us that in matters of love timing is everything.

Hannah De Priest, soprano and Jonathan Woody, baritone and composer, in Les Délices’s production of Song of Orpheus, 2021. Photo: Erica Brenner.

Dandrieu’s arresting “La lyre d’Orphée,” is a solo for harpsichord portraying the sound of a lyre. Mark Edwards is tasked with playing one instrument to represent another at a moment of despair. He succeeds brilliantly with a deft and sensitive touch that transcends the harpsichord and evokes that luminous sound of the lyre. While at first blush the work may seem arcane, Edwards’ take is fresh and humane, as if Orpheus is pleading with us via his lyre.

Jonathan Woody, this time a commanding baritone, sings Courbois’ “Orphée” with a smooth and dignified reserve that nonetheless conveys Orpheus’ pride, or perhaps his ego, even as Eurydice is lost and he faces death. Composer and singer, this gifted artist is also an effective actor. Essentially a mellifluous and melancholy monologue, it calls upon the musicians to once again create atmosphere, indeed a musical dialogue completing the musical picture that they and Woody so vividly create.” – John Hohmann

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