Saturday, June 2, 2012

Heaven & Hell

Looking forward to "Heaven and Hell," Ars Lyrica's 2011-12 season finale on June 8 and 10 at the Hobby Center. Here are notes on the program, from myself and Catherine Turocy, Artistic Director of the New York Baroque Dance Company, with whom we're collaborating on an all-Monteverdi program. This is not to be missed: an extraordinary opportunity to witness world première stagings of some of Monteverdi's most exceptional works!

Over the course of an exceptionally long career, Claudio Monteverdi composed some 250 madrigals that range from the comic and satirical to the plangent and war-like. This large and diverse repertory, published in some nine books between 1587 and 1651, is the best witness to the composer’s idiosyncratic and constantly evolving ideas about musical composition. Unusually for their time, these madrigals served as neither domestic music nor polyphonic showpieces but instead as highly expressive, supple works in the modern (mixed) style for professional singers. Because an intense focus on the words is this repertory’s hallmark, line-by-line translations will be given as surtitles throughout the performance.

From the Madrigals of Love and War (1638) our program includes four works, two from each half of this singular collection. Love and war are never very far apart in this poetry, thus most of these “madrigals” freely mix the stile concitato, in which instruments and singers simulate the sound of war by repeated hammering of the same notes (which Monteverdi invented), with sections in either the “languid” or the “temperate” styles. As the composer himself explained: “When [the poetry] speaks about war, it must imitate war; when it speaks about peace, imitate peace; about death, death, and so on.” Both halves of the program begin with settings of sonnets, one by Marini the other by Petrarch, and end with dramatized performances two more expansive tales: the Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda and the Ballo delle Ingrate.

The classic Italian sonnet typically comprises fourteen lines, arranged as pair of four-line strophes and another pair of three-line strophes. In Altri canti di marte and Hor ch’el ciel e la terra, Monteverdi underlines the shift from the first to the second half of each poem by setting them as independent sections. The former begins by juxtaposing Mars (the god of war) and Love, whose struggle is the subject of the first half of this evening’s program. Love, as the second part of Marini’s sonnet reminds us, may “give death to the heart,” but it also “gives life to my song.” By contrast Hor ch’el ciel begins with a whisper, since “heaven, earth, and wind are silent,” only to burst to life as the poet “wakes, thinks, burns, and weeps” with the memory of the beloved. Memory, as it turns out, is the enemy of more than just Petrarch’s muse: it is the eternal companion of the unhappy souls in hell who are the subject of the Ballo delle Ingrate.

First performed during the Venetian Carnival season of 1624 in the presence of the “best and noblest inhabitants of the town,” who “wept and were enraptured at this new style” (or so Monteverdi tells us), the Combattimento is based a portion of Torquato Tasso’s epic poem Gerusalemme liberate (Jerusalem Delivered). Set against the backdrop of the First Crusade, a forbidden love has grown between Tancredi, a Christian knight, and Clorinda, a Muslim maiden-warrior. Disguised as a man, she finds herself cut off from her fellow Saracens, and encounters Tancredi when both are battle-weary. They fight vigorously, disregarding all rules of combat: “rage causes every knightly art to be forgotten,” according to Tasso. It is not clear whether Clorinda has recognized Tancredi, but after two bloody encounters, she begs her opponent to baptize her so that she may die a Christian. As he pulls off her hood, Tancredi recognizes her as his lover and weeps as she dies.

Monteverdi’s audience would have been familiar with the story of Tancredi and Clorinda and would have known of the complex and deep love between the fated couple, who (like Romeo and Juliet) came from warring families. Through its detailed evocation of passion and conflict, this musical “combat” tells a universal story, one magnified by the gestures, attitudes and breath of dancers. The score consists mostly of simple narration; direct speech between the two protagonists is brief. Monteverdi instructs the narrator to pronounce the text clearly and directs that the work should be performed with the actors depicting the story in steps and gestures, with strict observance of tempo, beat, and step in a kind of pantomime. His description of the combat, graphically illustrated in the music, is matched by the actions of dancers who are the doubles of the singing Tancredi and Clorinda in this production. In perhaps the most striking departure from the typical emphasis on vocal text painting in the madrigal genre, most of the pictorial effects in this work come from the instrumental accompaniment.

Il Ballo delle Ingrate (The Ballet of the Ungrateful Ladies), set to a libretto by Ottavio Rinuccini, was first performed in Mantua in 1608 as part of the wedding celebrations for Francesco Gonzaga (the son of Monteverdi’s patron Duke Vincenzo) and Margaret of Savoy. Both Vincenzo and Francesco Gonzaga as well as other members of the court took part in the dancing—an odd fact, given that the dance roles seem to be for only women. According to the score, the stage set consists of a Hell’s Mouth (the entrance to the Underworld). Venus and Cupid visit Pluto, King of the Underworld, and complain that Cupid’s arrows are no longer effective on the proud ladies of Mantua, who are scorning their lovers. Cupid asks Pluto to bring the spirits of the ungrateful women who rejected love up from the Underworld to show what fate awaits those who spurn love and marriage. Pluto agrees and the spirits emerge.

The inspiration for the choreography came from Federico Follino, a Mantuan courtier, who gives an eyewitness account of the première. His description of the costumes—“like ashes mixed with flashing sparks; and thus one saw the dresses, and likewise the cloaks (which hung from their shoulders in a very bizarre manner), embroidered with many flames made of silk and gold, so well arranged that everyone judged that they were burning”—combined with his description of the movement suggest a theatrical interpretation after the manner of the morality play. Follino writes that “they did a ballo so beautiful and delightful, with steps, movements and actions now of grief and now of desperation, and now with gestures of pity and now of scorn, sometimes embracing each other as if they had tears of tenderness in their eyes, now striking each other swollen with rage and fury. They were seen from time to time to abhor each other’s sight and to flee each other in frightened manners, and then to follow each other with threatening looks, coming to blows with each other, asking pardon and a thousand other movements, represented with such affect and with such naturalness that the hearts of the onlookers were left so impressed that there was no one in the theater who did not feel his heart move and be disturbed in a thousand ways at the changing of their passions.” (With thanks to Sarah Edgar, dancer/researcher with the NYBDC, who brought this eyewitness account to our attention.) This production, then, acknowledges that Monteverdi and his team were on the cutting edge of a new form of theater based on ancient Greek drama: the Ballo was created one year after L’Orfeo, favola in musica, his first opera.

¬— Matthew Dirst and Catherine Turocy

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