, December 2010
Naxos’ series, “An Introduction to…,” written by Thomson Smillie, describes in detail the background and content of over two dozen operas, as well as including information on the composer. An Introduction to Monteverdi’s Orfeo is an especially significant and informative installment because it not only introduces the listener to the beginning of the history of opera, but illuminates an era that lies beyond the standard repertoire, and addresses seemingly arcane but critical issues of textual authority, historically informed performance practice, and performance history. Smillie’s writing is cogent, direct, and well-organized, and presents varying perspectives in a fair and balanced way. Listeners who have not made a detailed study of the topic are likely be exposed to fascinating and illuminating new information. Actor David Timson delivers the text in an entertaining and straightforward manner. A drawback of this enterprise is the quality of the performances used for musical examples, taken from the 1998 Naxos release featuring Sergio Vartolo leading Cappella Musicale di San Petronio di Bologna, a flaccid and lusterless account that is unlikely to inspire listeners who are not already highly motivated to want to get to know the opera. Listeners who can persevere through the mediocrity of the musical examples, though, will learn much from the narration to fruitfully prepare them for approaching a live performance or one of the many splendid recordings of the opera that are readily available.