An extraordinary program of late madrigals by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) opened Boston Early Music Festival new season on Saturday at Jordan Hall. The Festival Chamber Ensemble of singers and players was directed by Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs from two chitarroni (bass lutes), with Michael Sponseller, harpsichord, and Laura Jeppesen, viola da gamba rounding out the basso continuo, and Baroque violinists Robert Mealy, concertmaster, and Julie Andrijeski completing the instrumental ensemble. The versatile singers were soprano Teresa Wakim, mezzo Danielle Reutter-Harrah, countertenor Reginald Mobley, tenors Jason McStoots and Charles Blandy, and bass-baritone Douglas Williams.
Published in Venice 1638 under the title Madrigali guerrieri et amorosi, Monteverdi’s Eighth Book of Madrigals was a retrospective collection that included music composed decades earlier, but now ordered in two parts, “warlike” and “amorous.” In the preface, the composer declared his wish to explore the full range of affections in music, defined by Plato as “soft,” “moderate,” and “agitated;” he himself claimed to have rediscovered the warlike genus.
Saturday’s program opened with the opulent setting for full ensemble of Petrarch’s sonnet, “Hor che’l ciel, e la terra e’l vento tace” (Now that heaven, earth, and wind are silent). The first quatrain set the mood with a beautifully blended and carefully paced choral recitative. In the second, the lover-narrator contrasted the peaceful state of nature at rest with his own anger and grief in brief imitations, one voice tumbling in after the other. At the words “Guerra è il mio stato” (War is my state) the violins depicted agitated emotion in the new “excited” style. Contrapuntal interweaving of the voices returned in the sestet, combined with word painting: pungent harmonies on “amaro” (bitter) and ”moro” (I die), and multiple entries on “mille volte” (a thousand times). The final line, “So far am I from my salvation” was simply breathtaking, the voices representing the impossible distance by diverging to their lowest and highest pitches.
“Chiome d’oro” (Tresses of gold), a duet for two high voices and continuo with two obbligato violins, from the much earlier Seventh Book of Madrigals, brought a lighter mood in a series of melodious variations over a repeated walking bass. In “Gira il nemico insidioso Amore / La rocca del mio core” (The enemy, insidious Love, encircles / The fortress of my heart), Love’s assault, the lover’s resistance, and his final capitulation were satirized as a battle complete with sharply contrasting rhythms and galloping cavalry. McStoots, Blandy, and Williams rendered this comic scena with stylish aplomb. The single sacred song on the program, a setting of “Ego flos campi” (I am the rose of Sharon) from the Song of Songs, was beautifully sung by countertenor Reginald Mobley with clear and unforced tone, sensitive phrasing, and skillfully executed ornamentation. Soprano Teresa Wakim was the soloist in “Ohimè, ch’io cado” (Alas, I fall). One of the best Baroque singers around, she has a powerful and wonderfully expressive voice, in spite of occasional forced high notes. In this series of strophic variations over a walking bass, she showed a fine sensitivity to the flexibility of Monteverdi’s melodic lines.
The second half of the program opened with the extraordinary “Lamento della Ninfa” (The Nymph’s Lament). Against a background of choral declamation by the two tenors and bass as narrators and commentators, mezzo Danielle Reutter-Harrah sang her anguished tale of love and abandonment with remarkably pure tone and precise intonation, the wandering, flexible melody delivered with affecting simplicity and restraint. “Ogni amante è guerrier” (Every lover is a warrior) was an eloquent showpiece for tenors McStoots and Blandy, with expressive melody and bravura ornamentation depicting the heroic pursuit of love. Then, in a long bass solo, the focus shifted adroitly from the metaphorical battles of love to the heroic exploits of the “sacred, Caesarean majesty of [Hapsburg] Emperor Ferdinand III,” the dedicatee of the “Songs of Love and War.”
Monteverdi composed no instrumental works, but two sonatas for two violins and continuo by his contemporary Dario Castello, the second one including a separate part for the viola da gamba, demonstrated an expressive variety similar to that found in his madrigals. With short sections juxtaposing widely contrasting moods, rhythms, and tempi, they were a fine vehicle for the artful playing of Mealy, Andrijeski, and Jeppesen. L’eroica, by Andrea Falconieri, sounded like the kind of wild amusement a couple of violinists might concoct to see who could outdo the other in variations over a ground bass.
The final madrigal on the program, “Altri canti di Marte” (Let others sing of Mars) was originally placed at the beginning of the “Songs of Love” section of the Eighth Book. The text, a sonnet by Gian Battista Marino, mingles the metaphors of love and war with precious imagery. In the first stanza, the full ensemble joined in choral recitative by way of invocation, giving way in the second to a freely contrapuntal texture. The first tercet cheerfully invokes two beautiful eyes as weapons. The final paradox, sung first as a bass solo, was repeated by all six voices: “If you give death to my heart, give life to my song!” If demanding an encore after such an ambitious program seemed like asking too much, the repetition of the second part of “Hor che’l ciel, e la terra,” with its wonderfully climactic ending, seemed like the perfect way to conclude the evening.