by Sharon Cumberland -
SGN Contributing Writer
MONTEVERDI: 'SONGS OF LOVE AND WAR'
ILLSLEY BALL NORDSTROM RECITAL HALL
One perfect rose bursting into flame - the program cover of Monteverdi's 'Songs of Love and War' - is a great image for a sequence of madrigals that use war as a metaphor for love. The Pacific MusicWorks' concert, performed on November 7th to a packed house at Nordstrom Recital Hall, was a powerful interpretation of songs that fight the battle of the heart, whether unrequited or under siege, as expressed by a trio of Italian Renaissance poets. Artistic director and lutenist Stephan Stubbs conducted this exciting consort of six singers, two baroque violins, baroque cello, baroque harp, harpsichord and a chitarrone (also called an arch-lute or a theorbo - that long-necked instrument you climb on a step-ladder to tune). These songs, from 'Books Seven and Eight' of Monteverdi's madrigals, together with some lively orchestral pieces of the same period by Dario Castello, showcased the virtuosity of the singers and musicians, and gave the audience a vivid look at the throes of love, circa 1630-1650.
Monteverdi's war-like madrigals are a powerful genre of love song expressing anguish, heartbreak, and desperate longing - thus the conflagration of a flame-throwing rose. All of us born in the 20th century have our own favorite anthems of love trouble, depending on our generation: Duke Ellington: 'I got it bad, and that ain't good,' The Righteous Brothers: 'You've Lost That Loving Feeling,' Bonnie Tyler: 'Total Eclipse of the Heart,' Nirvana: 'About A Girl,' Cee-Lo Green: 'F**k You.' But nothing in living memory beats these lyrics for the lovelorn of the 17th century: 'The enemy, insidious Love, encircles the fortress of my heart,' or 'Every lover is a warrior; in his great empire Love, too, has his militia.' The extended metaphor of war makes the lover see his beloved as an enemy, either because longing turns normal life upside down, or because the beloved refuses all overtures and leaves the lover in despair. The evening opened with a madrigal using Petrarch's sonnet 'Hor che'l ciel, e la terra,' in which the six singers - soprano, mezzo soprano, countertenor, two tenors, and a bass - begin quietly considering the peace of night, but quickly enter into an agitated chorus describing the lover's anxiety:
I wake, I think, I burn, I weep, for her whose face
is ever before me, to my sweet pain.
War is my condition, full of both anger and grief...
A thousand times a day I die, and a thousand times reborn,
So far am I from my salvation!
Though wars are usually won by one side or the other, the lover's war in Monteverdi's madrigals is generally lost - in part because the exquisite suffering of the lover generates more compelling music than contentment in this metaphoric universe. For instance, in 'Lamento della Ninfa,' soprano Catherine Webster sang the voice of a nymph abandoned by her lover, while three men (tenors Aaron Sheehan and Ross Hauck, bass Douglas Williams) set the scene of her sad progress as she wanders over a field of flowers pleading to the god of love to either 'make my love return to me...or kill me, that I may no longer torment myself.' In this song the chorus establishes a warm, masculine echo for the mournful song of the nymph in a mini-drama of a broken heart. Both the nymph and her sympathetic chorus use a sliding dissonance and wave-like dynamics to express sorrow, against the gentle strings of the harp, cello, and chiterrone. Monteverdi considered this a 'song of love' since it did not use the agitated notes he invented to respond to Plato's injunction to 'Take up that harmony which imitates the voice and accents of a man going bravely into battle.'
A dramatic example of the lover going bravely into battle was 'Gira il nemico' in which the same three men who commiserated in 'Lamento della Ninfa' became manly soldiers calling for their weapons and horses to fight Love, the enemy who is 'nearing the gate with his forces.' Today we romanticize the act of falling in love in terms of happiness and fulfillment - we don't think of it in the desperate terms of Monteverdi's metaphor, in which the self must die or be killed in the process of becoming a new self when joined with the beloved. In this performance the extremes of war were sung as percussive repetitions, like orders of battle, ending in a humorous surrender because 'the conqueror, already inside the court, cries 'Fire, slaughter!' The heart is overwhelmed and made 'the servant of an arrogant tyrant.' The subtext of this hyperbole, which audiences in the baroque period knew, is that everyone wants love, and so the 'loss' of this war is actually a victory.
In Monteverdi's time the castrato - a male whose treble voice was preserved with either castration or childhood vasectomy - was considered the most heroic singing voice. 'L'Orfeo,' Monteverdi's great opera of 1607, was written for a male soprano in the principal role, and no fewer than six other mezzo sopranos or castrati in supporting roles. Today those roles are sung either by women or by countertenors who have trained their falsetto voices to have a robust sound, even though they are using only half of their vocal chords. In this concert the castrato voice was represented by the very fine countertenor Reginald Mobley, who sang 'Ego flos campi,' a piece of sacred music from the Song of Songs: 'I am the rose of Sharon and the lily of the valleys.' Though this text is not one of the madrigals of love or war, it was well placed to remind us of the tender aspect of love outside of the metaphor of war. This was the only countertenor solo, which made me wonder if Monteverdi would have had a male soprano sing some of the more warlike songs, since so many heroes of baroque opera - Rinaldo, Giulio Cesare, Orlando - were sung by castrati. In fact, mezzo soprano Danielle Reutter-Harrah showed us the interchangeability of gender roles, singing the monumental 'Et e pur dunque vero' about the unrequited love of a young man for his beloved, Lidia. In this epic madrigal the lover is so miserable that 'hell itself is an imitation of my pain.' The marvelous Reutter-Harrah brought a full range of baroque technique to this passionate madrigal - the baroque trill in which the voice repeats on the same stuttering note, the quarter note slide for the sigh of despair - that conveyed the intensity of a rejected lover's despair.
The two orchestral interludes by Dario Costello, a colleague of Monteverdi's at St. Mark's basilica in Venice, offered exciting counterpoints to the madrigals, with virtuoso violinists Tekla Cunningham and Linda Melsted providing the singing voices in conversation with the basso continuo of harp, harpsichord, cello and chiterrone. These were baroque songs without words, soulful and complex, giving the audience another way of thinking about vocal expression through the very human and flexible voice of the baroque violin.
In a discussion preceding the performance, Artistic Director Stubbs was asked how he selected the madrigals for this concert, since Monteverdi included over twenty-five songs in Book Eight, many of which last longer than fifteen minutes. His answer was that given the six gifted singers brought together for this concert, he selected solos, duets, trios, and quartets that showcased their particular talents. This was borne out by the concert, which was excellent in all of its elements - instrumental, vocal, and compositional. Monteverdi would be as proud of this concert of his madrigals as the audience was delighted by them.
We early music lovers are very fortunate to have Stephen Stubbs and Pacific MusicWorks in Seattle - as those who saw last year's performance of Handel's Semele at Meany Hall can attest. It is with great anticipation and enthusiasm that we look forward to the next performance of this marvelous group - Bach's 'Christmas Oratorio' on December 19th at St. James Cathedral.
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