An episode in Torquato Tasso’s monumental epic poem “Jerusalem Delivered” (Gerusalemme liberata) [virtual footnote: Canto XII, 52-62, 64-68; available in a masterly English verse translation by Anthony Esolen, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000] tells how the Christian knight, Tancred, believing her to be a man, pursues the Muslim warrior maiden, Clorinda. In ferocious hand-to-hand combat, they fight to the death. Only when Tancred lifts the dying maiden’s helmet to give her a drink of water, does he recognize Clorinda as his beloved. Dying, she is baptized by Tancred and becomes a Christian; their souls will be united in heaven.
Published in 1585, Tasso’s epic tale of the storming of Jerusalem by the Crusaders in 1099 sought to rally his contemporaries to defend the Catholic faith in the face of the Reformation, the colonization of the New World, and the threat of the Turks. In their performance of Claudio Monteverdi’s dramatic setting of the stanzas depicting the Combat of Tancred and Clorinda, first performed in Venice in 1624, Cottage Industry Theater re-imagined the drama in the context of the present-day Middle East. On first appearance, Tancred was dressed in jeans and a plaid shirt, then as a very American looking soldier in desert camouflage; Clorinda first appeared in a head scarf, then reappeared wearing an ammunition belt (which I mistook for a suicide vest) and a black ski helmet. Both wielded rifles rather than swords. Director and Production Designer Teddy Crecelius, who also sang the demanding role of narrator, re-envisioned the conflict as a clash between Western and Eastern (Muslim) ideologies, with a plea for tolerance and understanding of other cultures. Four performances were scheduled in Newton and four in Cambridge. This reviewer attended the second performance at the First Church in Cambridge on April 8th.
Monteverdi’s score of the Combattimento first appeared in his collection Madrigals of Love and War (Madrigali guerrieri ed amorosi) published in Venice in 1638. In his introduction, the composer goes to some lengths to describe how he took Tasso’s text as “an opportunity of describing in music contrary passions, namely, warfare and entreaty and death.” For the Combattimento he required the stile rappresentativo, or theatrical style of performance, which has been interpreted to call for some kind of balletic miming.
This production shunned such stylization in favor of immediacy. A minimal set, designed by Leslie Crecelius, consisted of a white backdrop partly covered by netting standing in for a wire fence, and flanked by black curtains. Translations of the Italian texts projected onto a screen hanging over the center of the backdrop vied for our attention with news footage from CNN, talking heads and all. This seemed to me a confusing and unnecessary distraction; the costumes and props (by Aleks Schoen) were quite enough to make the point.
Monteverdi’s score calls for two tenors and a soprano, a quartet of viols, and basso continuo. Music director Sheridan Haskell provided skilled realization of the continuo part on a bright and incisive virginal, keeping up the pace through multiple changes of meter and tempo. Musicians of the Commonwealth Consort on Baroque strings formed the viol consort: two violins (Chelsey Belt and Simone Trollmo), viola (Eleanor Verrette), and violone (Ben Rechel). Following Monteverdi’s notation, they provided agitated repeated notes (16 to a measure) in warlike passages, and sustained heavenly chords for the dying Clorinda. As narrator, Teddy Crecelius sang his recitative-like monody with unerring musicality but perhaps a bit too much restraint in the many passages in stile concitato (excited style). (One wondered why the section beginning “Notte, che nel profondo oscuro” with its skyrocketing conclusion was assigned to Clorinda.) As Tancred, David Evans was consistently ferocious in his demand for vengeance. Joelle Lachance was a heroic Clorinda, projecting a thrilling, powerful voice with a melting pianissimo, only occasionally troubled by wavering intonation.
In a post-performance discussion, members of the cast offered their own “back story” to their conception of the drama: a boy from Middle America and a Syrian refugee meet as college students and then make their separate ways to the Middle East, where they find themselves on opposite sides of a mortal conflict. Clorinda’s back story according to Tasso is scarcely more credible: blond and fair-skinned, she was born miraculously to an Ethiopian queen, who fearing her husband’s jealousy, spirited her away and adopted a black baby in her place. On the way to Egypt with her nurse, she was nursed by a tiger, grew up fearless, and joined the Saracens in the defense of Jerusalem.