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Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567 - 1643): Theatrical music

[I] "Night - Stories of lovers and warriors"
Concerto Italiano
Dir: Rinaldo Alessandrini
rec: April 8 - 12, 2016, Caserta (I), Teatro Real
Naïve - OP30566 (© 2017) (68'22")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover & track-list

A dio, florida bella (SV 110)abcdf [4]; Al lume delle stelle (SV 138)abef [5]; Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda (SV 153)aef [6]; Ecco mormorar l'onde (SV 51)abcdf [1]; Hor che'ciel e la terra (SV 147) [6]; Lamento della ninfa (Non havea febo ancora) (SV 163)bdef [6]; Quando l'alba in oriente (SV 233) [3]; Vivrò fra i miei tormenti e le mie cure (SV 72)bcdef [2]

Sources: [1] Il secondo libro de madrigali, 1590; [2] Il terzo libro de madrigali, 1592; [3] Scherzi musicali, 1607; [4] Il sesto libro de madrigali, 1614; [5] Concerto: settimo libro de madrigali, con altri generi de canti, 1619; [6] Madrigali guerrieri et amorosi, 1638

Monica Piccininia, Anna Simbolib, soprano; Aurelio Schiavoni, altoc; Gianluca Ferrarinid, Raffaele Giordanie, tenor; Matteo Bellotto, bassf
Nicholas Robinson, Antonio de Secondi, violin; Ettore Belli, Pietro Meldolesi, viola; Marco Ceccato, cello; Matteo Coticoni, violone; Ugo di Giovanni, Craig Marchitelli, theorbo; Rinaldo Alessandrini, harpsichord

[II] "I 7 peccati capitali"
Cappella Mediterranea
Dir: Leonardo García Alarcón
rec: April 2016, Le Sentée (Vallée de Joux, CH), Temple
Alpha - 249 (© 2016) (72'24")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

[in order of appearance] [La speranza (Hope)] L'incoronazione di Poppea (SV 308) (act 1, sc 4)ae; [La prodigalità (Extravagance)] Si dolce è'l tormento (SV 332)c [3]; [L'accidia (Sloth)] L'incoronazione di Poppea (SV 308) (ac 1, sc 2)ef; [L'invidia (Envy)] Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria (SV 325) (act 3, sc 5)defg; [La castità (Chastity)] Ardo e scoprir (SV 158)ac [4]; [La superbia (Pride)] L'incoronazione di Poppea (SV 308) (act 1, sc 9)dg; [L'avarizia (Greed)] L'incoronazione di Poppea (SV 308) (ac 2, sc 6)ef; [L'umiltà (Humility)] O ciechi ciechi (SV 252)acdeg [5]; [La gola (Gluttony)] Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria (SV 325) (act 2, sc 3)ef; [La temperanza (Temperance)] Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria (SV 325) ([Leonardo GARCÍA ALARCÓN] act 5, sc 2)d; [La lussuria (Lust)] Si ch'io vorrei morire (SV 89)cdefg [2]; [La carità (Charity)] L'Orfeo (SV 318) (act 3)e; [L'ira (Wrath)] Vattene pur, crudel (SV 67)bcdfh [1]; [La fortezza (Courage)] Altri canti d'amor (SV 146)acdefg [4]

Sources: Monteverdi, [1] Il terzo libro de madrigali, 1592; [2] Il quarto libro de madrigali, 1604; [3] Milanuzzi, ed., Quarto scherzo delle ariose vaghezze, 1624; Monteverdi, [4] Madrigali guerrieri et amorosi, 1638; [5] Selva morale e spirituale, 1640/41

Francesca Aspromontea, Francesca Boncompagnib, Mariana Floresc, soprano; Christopher Lowrey, altod; Emiliano Gonzalez-Toroe, Mathias Vidalf, tenor; Gianluca Burattog, Philippe Favetteh, bass
Stéphanie de Failly, Lathika Vithanage, violin; Margaux Blanchard, viola da gamba; Henrikke Rynning, bass violin; Marie Bournisien, harp; Quito Gato, theorbo, guitar; Matthias Spaeter, archlute; Leonardo García Alarcón, spinet, organ


In 2017 the birth of Claudio Monteverdi was commemorated. Obviously this resulted in quite a number of CD productions with his oeuvre. We have seen new recordings of his best-known compositions, such as the operas and his Vespers. In fact, as he is one of the most famous composers in the history of Western music, it seems likely that his entire oeuvre is available on disc. Fortunately some performers have come up with original ideas to celebrate the birth of this genius. Among them are Rinaldo Alessandrini and Leonardo García Alarcón.

It is fair to say that Monteverdi was a man of the theatre by nature. He wrote quite a number of operas, of which only a few have come down to us. However, many of his other compositions are also of a theatrical character, even when they are written in the stile antico. His leanings towards the world of the theatre can be observed in his madrigals: the early books adhere to the style which was common in the late 16th century, whereas in later books he increasingly introduced dramatic elements. Alessandrini took an interesting perspective: music which is associated with the night and with darkness. He explains his choice in an interview in the booklet: "Night has always been a theatrical space that both welcomes and symbolises a wide variety of moods. The most passionate amorous encounters can take place at night, but it's also a time for plots and betrayals. We connect night with the secretive exchange of feelings, but also with concealed machinations. The absence of sunlight changes the characteristics of people and things. In the theatre, moreover, night is set against day, when the latter becomes the catharsis of nocturnal psychologies in the dramaturgical scheme. Poets are well aware of this: for them night has always signified an extremely sensitive moment in human life - a moment often involving solitude and peopled with illusions, but also, just as frequently, devoted to desire and the explosion of amorous feelings."

The most famous piece by Monteverdi which describes a scene at night is the Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda. It is included in the collection Madrigali guerrieri et amorosi of 1638, and it is a perfect example of a madrigal which is highly theatrical. In fact, one could call this piece a mini opera, and in the work-list in New Grove, it is rightly ranked among the theatrical works, alongside the operas. However, the two title characters play a relatively minor role; it is the narrator, called Testo, who has the largest part to sing. In this piece one of the main features of the stile nuovo, the ideal of recitar cantanto, is mixed with what was a speciality of Monteverdi, the stile concitato. This made a strong impression: in the course of the 17th century composers across Europe made use of this style to express strong conflicts, sometimes of a military nature - either literally or metaphorically. The piece receives here a brilliant performance, which is hard to surpass: Raffaele Giordani is a highly expressive narrator, and his diction is such, that even at the high speed Alessandrini has (rightly) chosen, the text is clearly intelligible. What is more important: the drama of the story comes perfectly off and the listener can experience the confrontation of the two title characters.

The Combattimento is followed by Vivrò fra i miei tormenti, a lamento of Tancredi when he realises what has happened. It is from the third book of madrigals of 1592 and written in the stile antico, in which all the voices are treated on equal footing. It is interesting to compare this madrigal with Al lume delle stelle from the seventh book of 1619. It is for four voices and again in the stile antico, but the line-up is unusual in that the four parts are allocated to two sopranos, a tenor and a bass, and includes duets for either the two lower or the two upper voices. "A tendency to theatricalisation is apparent throughout, yet the music doesn't depart from the polyphonic framework", according to the liner-notes.

The programme is a kind of journey through the night. It opens with Hor che'l ciel e la terra, which is enacted at the beginning of the night: "Now, while sky and earth and wind are still, and animals and birds are locked in sleep, Night's starry chariot is wheeling round and in its bed the ocean waveless lies". It ends with Quando l'alba in oriente, which depicts the splendour of dawn: "When Dawn in the East prepares to escort the life-giving sun, we see her rising from the sea clad in her shining gown, diffusing gleaming rays that conceal the stars in the sky." It is a most interesting concept, which brings together some of Monteverdi's finest pieces. Some of them are very well known, others probably less so. Even if one has all these pieces in his collection, one should add this disc. Over the years I have heard few recordings of Monteverdi madrigals which are as good as this one.

I already referred to the art of recitar cantando, which every singer here fully commands. The ensemble is also outstanding: listen to the start of Hor che'l ciel e la terra, where the voices declamate the text together, and blend perfectly. Together they then create a nice and effective climax in the next episode. The famous Lamento della ninfa is also brilliantly done; Anna Simboli delivers an incisive account of the soprano part.

This is an exciting disc which Monteverdi lovers will return to regularly.

As we have already seen, many of Monteverdi's madrigals are highly dramatic. In the booklet to the second production reviewed here, Vincent Borel states that "Monteverdi's eight books of madrigals were the laboratory for his operas". From that perspective it makes much sense to bring the two genres together, as is the case in the programme that Leonardo García Alarcón has recorded with his ensemble Cappella Mediterranea. It was his aim to demonstrate how Monteverdi portrays the human emotions in his music.

The liner-notes mention that this aspect became increasingly important as opera developed into one of the main forms of public entertainment. Whereas L'Orfeo was performed at court, the other two operas which have been preserved were performed in public theatres in Venice. In many ways they reflect society in general and Venetian society in particular. That goes especially for L'incoronazione di Poppea, which García Alarcón rightly calls "perhaps the most amoral opera in the history of music", and reflects the world of politics at the time. It is an interesting question why the librettist, Gian Francesco Busenello, chose to portray it in such a blunt manner, without bringing it to a conclusion in which morality comes out on top. He was a member of the 'libertine' Accademia degli Incogniti and belonged to a family of patricians. It seems possible that the libretto is an expression of his own views. The question then is why Monteverdi decided to use it. One cannot exclude that an opera as L'incoronazione di Poppea had the same goal as many paintings of the renaissance: not to glorify immoral behaviour, but warn against it by displaying it in all its brutality.

The title of this disc is rather imprecise by mentioning only the "seven deadly sins". These go back to Pope Gregory I (590-604) and are the subject of the famous painting by Jheronymus Bosch. The Pope also made a list of seven virtues. The title suggests that only the deadly sins are portrayed here, but the fact that the programme comprises fourteen madrigals and extracts from the operas already suggests that the seven virtues are also displayed. Apparently the producers thought that the mentioning of the sins were more likely to catch the attention of music lovers than the seven virtues. What does that tell us about them?

In a number of cases the connection between the music and the sin or virtue is obvious. From L'incoronazione di Poppea we hear scene 9 from the first act, where Nero tells Seneca that he has decided to remove Octavia as his consort and marry Poppea. It is connected to "pride", and rightly so, considering Nero's view on his power: "The law is for those who serve, and if I wish I can abolish the old law and make new ones. Power is divided: heaven is Jupiter's, but the sceptre of this earthly world is mine." The programme opens with scene 4 from the first act of that same opera, in which Poppea expresses her hopes for greatness; thence the connection to "hope", one of the seven virtues. We meet "gluttony", one of the seven deadly sins, in act 2, scene 3 from Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, a dialogue between Iro and Eumete. But I don't quite understand what Orfeo's solo in act 3, 'Orfeo son io', has to do with "charity". The idea behind this programme is quite nice and interesting, but it would have been useful if the booklet had included some explanation about the connection between one of the emotions and the music connected to it. That is even more the case, as one cannot assume that every listener to this disc is fully acquainted with the storyline of Monteverdi's operas.

There are some other issues. There is hardly any space between the various tracks, which I find uncomfortable, especially as the pieces often represent strongly contrasting emotions. Tracks 6 and 7 offer two extracts from L'incoronazione di Poppea, both with Nero as one of the characters. In the former case this part is sung by the alto Christopher Lowrey, in the latter it is taken by the tenor Emiliano Gonzalez-Toro. I find that rather odd. For "temperance" García Alarcón chose a piece from Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, but one that is not set by Monteverdi. Therefore he made his own setting. I am rather sceptical about this procedure; was there no other music that could have been taken instead? García Alarcón's music is pretty good, but obviously not anything like Monteverdi's. Also included is a piece from the collection Selva morale e spirituale: O ciechi ciechi represents "humility". It receives the same treatment as other madrigals in this collection, and I find that questionable as this is a spiritual madrigal, very likely intended for domestic performance. A more intimate performance and acoustic would have been preferable.

Despite these considerations, this is an admirable recording. The singing is really excellent, and the dramatic character of the various pieces comes off to the full. In the madrigals the ensemble is flawless, which helps to communicate their content. The playing of the instruments is of the same high level. Monteverdi lovers will certainly enjoy this production.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

Relevant links:

Cappella Mediterranea
Concerto Italiano

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