In “Monteverdi’s Warring Lovers” Aston Magna kicked off its 43rd season last night at Brandeis with dramatic madrigals from the composer’s books 7 and 8. William Hite, Frank Kelley, and Dominique Labelle gave voice to many moments of musical inspiration.
Madrigals are often assimilated to polyphonic a cappella works, and Monteverdi was certainly a master of those. What we heard here were madrigals featuring one or two singers and marking a stylistic evolution towards monody, such as the arias of his operas. Boston has heard much of that lately; it is a bold choice for Aston Magna to program even more of this composer’s works after BEMF presented what the wags termed “the full Monty” and performed his Venetian operas. These madrigals also date to his Venetian days, and reflect his stile concitato—an agitated style which his preface to the eighth book of madrigals links to neo-Platonic philosophy and the sounds of brave men going off to war. It is worth noting this preface also links the music to “humors” and “the passions or affections”; he is another in a long line of people grappling with the power of emotions.
It is fitting, then, that this was an emotional performance which served to enrich the festival presentation of so much Monteverdi. The program opened with Hite singing Tempro la cetra, SV 117, the opening work in Monteverdi’s seventh book and a delightfully programmatic piece about making music and working to serve both Mars and Venus. Kelley then joined Hite for Se vittorie si belle (SV 150) and Ah, che non si conviene romper la fede (SV 125); the former was an earnest battle in music between voices, exploring bravery and quick action in both domains, while the latter was a more dramatic number, capturing the throes of love’s battle. Both Hite and Kelley sang with great enunciation here and throughout; Hite’s voice blended nicely with the instruments, and Kelley’s darker voice provided ample contrast between the two tenors. The instrumental ensemble, led by Daniel Stepner, then stepped up with Biagio Marini’s Passacalio a 4 from his final 1655 collection, Sonate de Chiesa e da Camera, per ogni sorte d’stromento. This passacaglia, composed by a violinist thought to have been a student of Monteverdi’s, retains that dance’s triple metre and variation structure; it is beautifully moving music with a descending figure that creates a sense of tragedy and longing. The tenors then returned for Monteverdi’s Interrotte speranza, eternal fede, which makes powerful use of musical minimalism and found true champions in these performers as they sang poignantly of heartbreak. Another of Marini’s Sonate, a Sonata a 4, continued in a similar vein; the unexpected opening on violoncello solo (admirably delivered by Loretta O’Sullivan) prefaced an intriguing exploration of shifting modalities in this four section work. Dominique Labelle, joined by Hite, Kelley, and Stepner (singing this time, not playing violin), completed this first half with Lamento delle ninfa, in a thrilling performance that brought tears to the eyes. Devoted readers will know I have praised Labelle in the past and this review is no exception: her powerful and emotive voice with its clear upper register and delightfully dusky lower, found perfect expression in this stellar performance.
Labelle returned following intermission with Catherine Liddell (theorbo) for Monteverdi’s Lettera amorosa (Se i languidi i miei sguardi). It is always a sheer delight to hear Dominique Labelle; this duet with Liddell showcased their skills in a divine pairing with nuanced phrasings and articulations and tightly attuned shadings. This performance alone was worth the price of admission and I would love to hear them in this music again. The instrumentalists then gave us Sonata 15 from Venetian composer Dario Castello’s second volume of Sonate concertate (1629), a theatrical display piece which was fun to hear, and seemingly also to play. This ably served as an overture to the final work on the program—Monteverdi’s Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda (SV 153). Frank Kelley sang the bulk of this work as Testo, while William Hite (Tancredi) and Dominique Labelle (Clorinda) acted out this drama of mistaken identity as these opposing warriors, and star-crossed lovers, faced off in battle outside of Jerusalem. Drawn from Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata, this dramatic work is an operatic miniature, a tale of love and war, of conflicting passions and religions, which inspired intense musical writing full of effects and a prime piece of the composer’s agitated style. Hite and Labelle, with the assistance of plastic costume swords, acted out the drama Kelley narrated in this wonderful performance.
This program repeats tonight at Olin Auditorium, Bard College (Annandale-on-Hudson, NY), and tomorrow at Daniel Arts Center, Bard College at Simon’s Rock (Great Barrington, MA).