musica Dei donum
[I] Claudio MONTEVERDI: "Combattimento"
Patrizia Ciofia, soprano; Topi Lehtipuug, Rolando Villazónh, tenor
Le Concert d'Astrée
Dir: Emmanuelle Haïm
rec: Nov 18/20-23, 2005, Paris, Église Notre Dame du Liban; May 19, 2006, Paris, Hôpital Notre Dame de Bon Secours (chapel)
Virgin Classics - 3 63402 2 (CD; DVD) (© 2006) (67'28" / 41')
Patrizia Ciofia, Natalie Dessayb, Véronique Gensc, soprano;
Joyce DiDonatod, mezzosoprano;
Marie-Nicole Lemieuxe, contralto;
Philippe Jarousskyf, alto;
Topi Lehtipuug, Rolando Villazónh, Simon Walli, tenor;
Laurent Naourij, bass-baritone;
Christopher Purvesk, bass
Le Concert d'Astrée
Dir: Emmanuelle Haïm
rec: Feb 4 - 6, 2007 & May 26 - 27, 2008, Paris, Hôpital Notre Dame de Bon Secours (chapel)
Virgin Classics - 5 19044 2 (© 2008) (64'21")
[I] Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643):
Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorindaagh ;
Ecco di dolci raggi il sol armatoh ;
Eri già tutta miah ;
Et è pur dunque verog ;
Interrotte speranze, eterna fedegh ;
Maledetto sia l'aspettog ;
Ohimè ch'io cadoa ;
Perché se m'odiavig ;
Più lieto il guardog ;
Quel sguardo sdegnosettoa ;
Sì dolce è 'l tormentoh ;
Tempro la cetrag ;
Tornate, o cari bacig 
[II] Giacomo CARISSIMI (1605-1674):
Lamento di Maria Stuardaa;
Pietro Francesco CAVALLI (1602-1676):
L'Egisto (D'Hipparco e di climene - Lasso io vivo)h;
La Didone (Acate, Ilioneo, compagni, amici - Dormi, cara Didoneg;
Alle ruine del mio regno adunque - Tremulo spiritoae);
Pietro Antonio CESTI (1623-1669):
L'Argia: Dure noi, che rendetej;
Stefano LANDI (1587-1639):
Superbe colli, e voi, sacre ruinek ;
L'incoronazione di Poppea (Addio Roma)d;
L'Orfeo (Tu se' morta mia vita)h;
Lamento della Ninfabgik ;
Barbara STROZZI (1619-1677):
L'Eraclito amorosof 
Stéphanie-Marie Degand, Virginie Descharmes [II], Stéphanie Paulet [I], violin;
Cécile Mille [I], Michel Renard [II], viola;
Claire Giardelli [II], cello;
Anne-Marie Lasla [II], Jonathan Manson [II], viola da gamba;
Atsushi Sakaï [I], viola da gamba, cello;
Nicola dal Maso, double bass [I], violone [II];
Emilia Benjamin [II], Erin Headley, lirone;
Brian Feehan [II], Laura Monica Pustilnik, lute;
Angélique Mauillon, harp;
Emmanuelle Haïm, harpsichord, organ
 Claudio Monteverdi, Concerto: settimo libro di madrigali, 1619;
 Stefano Landi, Arie, 1620;
 C. Milanuzzi, ed., Quarto scherzo delle riose vaghezze, 1624;
 Claudio Monteverdi, Scherzi musicali, 1632;
 A. Vincenti, ed., Arie de diversi, 1634;
 Claudio Monteverdi, Madrigali guerrieri, et amorosi ... Libro ottavo, 1638;
 Barbara Strozzi, Cantate, ariette e duetti, op. 2, 1651)
A review of these two discs in one article makes a lot of sense. Not only because Monteverdi figures on both of them, they are also complementary in that the first disc shows the various aspects of Monteverdi's oeuvre, whereas the second puts him in a historical context and shows the similarities and differences between him and other Italian composers of the 17th century. That is all the more interesting as various composers of later generations are represented, whose oeuvre makes clear how the musical taste had developed since Monteverdi's time.
Another reason for reviewing them together is that the performers are largely the same, and - I might as well say it now - the merits (few) and defects (many) of both discs are pretty much the same.
One look at the list of singers and one might guess something has to be wrong. On the first disc only Topi Lehtipuu is more or less a specialist in early music. At least he has quite a lot of experience in this repertoire. But what on earth does Roberto Villazón in music of the baroque era? A long time ago a Dutch critic wrote about a recording of madrigals by Monteverdi under the direction of Raymond Leppard: the singers seem to think Monteverdi was the father of Verdi. Villazón performances aren't as bad as those, but still his performances are pretty much off the mark. As all vocalists who mainly sing 19th century operas in the traditional manner he is more focused on producing sound than text. It is his lack of declamation and the inability to perform this repertoire in a really speechlike manner which is the main problem, even more than the ugly vibrato he uses and the fact that his singing is mostly too loud. The ornaments are anything but natural and often exaggerated and not always stylish. The defects make the Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda difficult to swallow. His performances are not exactly notable for their subtlety, but his attempt to be a bit more sensitive in Sì dolce è 'l tormento fails miserably and is little more than pathetic.
In the duets with Topi Lehtipuu he overpowers his colleague; there is no good balance between their voices nor do they blend very well. Unfortunately Lehtipuu has been infected by Villazón's virus as he uses too much vibrato and his interpretation falls short of what one may expect in this repertoire.
Many of what has been said about Villazón also applies to Patrizia Ciofi. She also destroys Monteverdi's music by using too much vibrato and paying too few attention to the text. Her attempt to express the text in Ohimè ch'io cado is ridiculous, and Quel sguardo sdegnosetto is anything but speechlike.
What could have driven Emmanuelle Haïm to inviting people like Villazón and Ciofi to participate in this recording project? Probably the wish to be different - that certainly has taken effect, but it isn't something to be proud of. All stylistic considerations apart, what strikes most is that these performances are anything but exciting, not even dramatic. And that is the worst which can be said about a recording of music by Monteverdi.
All in all the second disc is a bit better. But there is no consistency in the interpretation as far as the vocal contributions are concerned. Obviously Rolando Villazón is again the odd man out: his performances are the worst of this disc, and show no expression whatsoever. Most of the other singers have more experience in early music, but that doesn't make their performances necessarily more satisfying.
Very disappointing is Véronique Gens in the Lamento d'Arianna by Claudio Monteverdi. Her performance is rhythmically much too strict, and there is too little declamation of the text. As a result the expression is very limited, and there are many other better and more emotional performances available that what is delivered here. Another highly expressive piece by Monteverdi, Lamento della Ninfa, suffers from the rather traditional style of singing of Natalie Dessay. The trio of male singers don't make things better, as their performances are too flat.
The disc contains two excerpts from Cavalli's opera La Didone. Topi Lehtipuu doesn't make a really good start, but soon finds the right approach to his segment, and sings it really well. The second excerpt is difficult to swallow, mainly because of the wide vibrato of Marie-Nicole Lemieux. This is just unstylish and historically indefensible. Laurent Naouri doesn't make any impression in the excerpt from Cesti's L'Argia, partly because a lack of declamation and too much vibrato. Patrizia Ciofi is certainly dramatic in her performance of Giacomo Carissimi's Lamento di Maria Stuarda, but her approach is too traditional in regard to the relationship between text and music, and on the top notes she sounds stressed. Overall Catherine Bott's performance (Decca/L'Oiseau Lyre) is more expressive and shows a greater range of emotion.
One of the best parts of this disc is Philippe Jaroussky in Barbara Strozzi's L'Eraclito amoroso as he shows what some other singers are lacking: a good understanding of the text and the affetti it wants to express. The same is true for Christopher Purves who gives a very dramatic account of a monody by Stefano Landi, which was specifically composed for a bass with a large tessitura. Lastly Joyce DiDonato in 'Addio Roma' from Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea: although from a stylistic point of view her performance is not ideal, there is a great deal of text expression here and she effectively colours her voice to emphasize elements in the text (like "ai pianti, ai passi").
Like I said the second disc is better than the first, but it is still a mixed baggage as far as the interpretation is concerned. The contributions of several instrumentalists - for instance the lirone players - on both discs is very good, but overall the ensemble isn't very colourful and sometimes really bland. It is impossible to recommend the first disc, the second disc can only be recommended to those who can get up the tolerance to bear the various defects in the interpretations.
Johan van Veen (© 2009)
Le Concert d'Astrée