On Saturday night at the University Lutheran Church in Cambridge, Exsultemus offered a rare performance of Orazio Vecchi’s Le veglie di Siena (Night Games of Siena), a 16th century Italian madrigal comedy. This musical form strings together a series of a capella madrigals to form a loose plot and is a historical precursor to opera.
The program book looked daunting: pages of Italian verse told the story of three nights of indulgent dinner parties, complete with a game of national impersonations for the fictional guests, a hunt for Cupid, and an improvisatory musical competition in assorted Renaissance styles. This all appeared so idiosyncratic on the page that one wondered if it would require a scholarly background to apprehend. And even then, does any modern American have the context to appreciate a 16th century Italian’s parody of a contemporaneous Frenchman—let alone a Sicilian?
Yes, it turns out, because Vecchi’s music provides the context and has an immediacy that transcends its original time and place. There is, no doubt, a myriad of stylistic and cultural references that escapes us today, but the basic intent and the various moods and feelings through which the music moves still shine. For the most part this comedy isn’t a joke-based farce, but rather a deeply humane piece of secular entertainment. The dinner guests dwell on the pain of love, at one point proposing “Let’s have vengeance on Cupid for a thousand offenses … / Why don’t we slaughter him, and we have our vengeance? / I want to pluck out his eyes.”
The scoring is twiny with canonic imitation among the six voices and the phrases tug toward the inevitable embellished cadence. The text is also richly painted in the setting: at one point in the hunt there is a cacophonous buildup of barking dogs and hunting horns.
The members of Exsultemus—Shari Alise Wilson, Carrie Cheron, Matthew Anderson, Paul Guttry, Owen McIntosh, and General Director Shannon Canavin—performed beautifully while seated around a candlelit dinner table, balancing precision with flexibility and marrying a musical seriousness with a relaxed stage presence. The ensemble blended cohesively, yet the individuality of each voice was never subsumed. Exsultemus may be a niche group, but they have some of the best singers around and their repertoire—if this sample is representative—is accessible in the best possible way, with potential for near universal appeal.