United States Monteverdi & Other Treasures from the Seicento: Summer Hassan (soprano), Michael Kuhn & Raúl Melo (tenors), Manami Mizumoto & Rebecca Nelson (violins), Majka Demcak (viola), Paul Holmes Morton (theorbo & guitar), Doug Balliett (bass instruments) / Elliot Figg (music director & harpsichord). The little OPERA theatre of ny, St. John’s in the Village, New York, 4.6.2021. Streamed by Musae live. (RP)
Giovanni Battista Buonamente – Sonata Seconda à 3 Violini
Barbara Strozzi – ‘Lagrime mie, Lamento’
Domenico Gabrieli – Sonata prima à basso solo
Dario Castello – Sonate Concertate Book 2 No.14
Claudio Monteverdi – ‘Sì dolce è’l tormento’, ‘Maladetto sia l’aspetto’, Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda
In Monteverdi & Other Treasures from the Seicento, the little OPERA theatre of ny explored works of the late Renaissance and early Baroque. This concert of instrumental and vocal music was performed before a small audience at St. John’s in the Village, and simultaneously live-streamed via Musae. When viewing from home, the applause came as a surprise: a clear indication that life in New York is on the path to a post-pandemic normal.
Founded in 2004, LOTNY was modeled on the English Opera Group in the UK and the Provincetown Players in the US. The former was a small company formed in 1947 by the composer Benjamin Britten for the purpose of presenting his and other, primarily British, composers’ operatic works; the latter was part of the American ‘little theatre’ movement of the 1920s, which served as the inspiration for LOTNY’s name.
Although vocal music predominated here, there was no opera per se to be heard. Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, composed for the court of Mantua in 1607, is the earliest opera still performed today, but LOTNY offered a sampling of his music for solo voice. All of it was composed a decade or so later, after Monteverdi had moved to Venice in 1613 to assume the position of maestro di cappella at St. Mark’s.
The centerpiece of the concert was Monteverdi’s dramatic cantata, Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, which dates from 1624. It is a setting of an extended passage of Tasso’s epic poem Gerusalemme liberta, in which the Christian knight Tancredi and his lover Clorinda, disguised as a Saracen warrior, engage in mortal combat; he only recognizes her after administering the fatal blow. There are no passionate embraces or recrimination, however, as Tancredi’s first instinct is to baptize her. His reward is Clorinda’s vision of the gates of heaven opening to receive her.
Raúl Melo sang the role of the narrator, in which his stalwart tenor vividly captured the excitement of battle. His rapid-fire articulation of the text when describing Tancredi and Clorinda in combat left one breathless. The clash of their swords was also heard in the instruments, which was the first time ever that a composer wrote out pizzicato markings in a score. Soprano Summer Hassan and tenor Michael Kuhn gestured and struck the poses in keeping with Monteverdi’s instructions.
Kuhn had the opportunity to display his keen dramatic and musical instincts, as well as the beauty of his voice, in two other selections by Monteverdi, the solo madrigal ‘Sì dolce è’l tormento’ and the arietta ‘Maladetto sia l’aspetto’. The former is the lovely lament of a lover unfortunate in love, while the latter expresses more violent passions. Fiery writing for voice and violin captured the curses hurled at the lover who set his heart ablaze.
Whether intentional or not, there was a link to the present with these two works: both were published in 1632, when Venice was emerging from an epidemic of the plague that claimed an enormous number of lives.
The Venetian composer Barbara Strozzi, a near-contemporary of Monteverdi, was the first woman to have her music published in her own name. She was the daughter of Giulio Strozzi, a celebrated poet of the day, whose fame provided opportunities for his daughter unavailable to most women of the era. Her remarkable sensitivity to text and an ability to express emotions in music are also due in part to his influence. Summer Hassan lent her dark soprano to Strozzi’s bitter lament, ‘Lagrime mie, Lamento’, in a performance notable for its intensity and her impassioned enunciation of the text.
Three instrumental works completed the program, which opened with Giovanni Battista Buonamente’s Sonata Seconda à 3 Violini. Active as a composer and a violinist, Buonamente’s career was centered in Mantua, Vienna and Assisi. Little is known of Dario Castello, except that he led a wind group at St. Mark’s in Venice and perhaps performed with Monteverdi. He published two sets of sonatas for strings and winds, of which Sonate Concertate Book 2 No.14 was performed here.
From the harpsichord, Elliot Figg led spirited performances of these as well as the other works, which were enlivened by the playing of Majka Demcak, Manami Mizumoto and Rebecca Nelson.
The instrumental highlight of the evening, however, was Domenico Gabrieli’s Sonata prima à basso solo. Gabrieli, a composer and one of the earliest known virtuoso cello players, was born in Bologna. This sonata not only showcased the talents of Doug Balliett on the baroque bass, but also those of theorbist Paul Holmes Morton. Theatricality and remarkable musicianship are the hallmarks of these two fine performers.
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