Having already proved herself on disc in repertoire ranging from Handel and Gluck to Mozart and Richard Strauss, Anne Sofie von Otter here turns her attention to early Baroque works by Monteverdi, Cavalli, Luigi Rossi and Francesco Provenzale. As the mezzo-soprano discusses in a brief essay in the accompanying booklet, she once viewed music of this era as less exciting than later works by Handel or Vivaldi because of its emphasis on extended recitative — "a (mostly boring) way of getting from one aria to the next." However, as von Otter states and demonstrates here, she has long since changed her point of view and now relishes performing these richly nuanced early masterpieces.
At this point in her long, varied career, von Otter's voice continues to sound remarkably fresh and untouched by time, her singing notable for its mellifluous elegance, appropriately stylish use of (superbly-pitched) straight tone and slender vibrato, and smooth transitions between vocal registers. Beginning with the disc's opening selection (Monteverdi's languid song "Si dolce è 'l tormento"), von Otter's exceptional sensitivity to both music and text is clearly evident, and it remains so for the duration of the program. In addition to "Si dolce," highlights include the sensual "Pur ti miro," from L'Incoronazione di Poppea,in which von Otter is joined by the honeyed soprano of Sandrine Piau as Poppea; Provenzale's extensive, amusing and (possibly) politically-motivated parody lament based on a work by Rossi (also included on the album); and the emotionally wide-ranging "Di misera regina," from Monteverdi's Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria, which also features contralto Susanna Sundberg. Conductor Leonardo García Alarcón and his ensemble Cappella Mediterranea — a ten-piece period band of superb players — provide colorful accompaniment to the vocal lines and also excel in three atmospheric instrumental selections.
Naïve's recording has captured both voices and instruments closely and crisply, placing the listener firmly in the midst of the performance. This intimacy serves the album well, given the predominantly introspective nature of the program, while the high caliber of the artists involved makes the up-close aural perspective a delight. The hefty booklet (which should have been more carefully edited) features complete texts and translations in French, English and German, as well as several informative essays on the recorded repertoire, its composers and the emergence of opera as a new art form in the seventeenth century. This release is a must-have for lovers of early Baroque opera and the sublime Anne Sofie von Otter.