(St John’s Smith Square, 7 June 2017)
As part of their celebrations for the 450th anniversary of Monteverdi’s birth, the French ensemble Les Talens Lyriques were on stage in London for one night only, for a selection of madrigals and operatic scenes written by the great composer. I’d never seen them perform live, although I have many of their recordings, and was eager to see them at last under the baton of Christophe Rousset. The recital was made even more irresistible by the singers: two tenors whom I like very much: the Swiss Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, whom I’ve seen in several other roles, and the Swedish haute contre Anders J. Dahlin, who sings Dario in my much-loved recording of Vivaldi’s Incoronazione di Dario. My expectations were high and yet, remarkably, they were exceeded by this elegant concert which blended heartfelt grace with dramatic verve.
Les Talens Lyriques, who are celebrating their own 25th anniversary, had put together a bijou orchestra for the occasion, with Rousset himself playing harpischord and organ as well as conducting, Gilone Gaubert-Jacques and Josépha Jégard on violins, and Emmanuel Jacques on the cello. This was the perfect size of band for this kind of music: Monteverdi always sounds at his best when the voices can soar almost unaccompanied, although there were also a couple of instrumental pieces by his contemporaries which brought the strings centre-stage. And it’s exactly the kind of music that sounds best somewhere like St John’s, which is small enough to preserve a sense of intimacy, yet blessed with the kind of ecclesiastical acoustics that warm and magnify the sound.
First up were two madrigals from Monteverdi’s Settimo libro de madrigali, dating from 1619 when the composer was 52. The first, Chiome d’oro, was a light, romantic love-song in which the lover lists his lady’s charms, from her golden tresses to the pearls of her teeth hidden by the roses of her lips, and the bright stars of her eyes. It was followed by O come sei gentile, in which the lover compares his state to that of a singing bird imprisoned in a cage. The former was delightfully jaunty; the latter a trifle more melancholic, as suited a thwarted lover. Both madrigals used the voices in a fairly simple way, layering them to create a polyphonic effect with Dahlin taking the higher part and Gonzalez Toro the lower, showing off the real robustness of his voice.
The two singers then had a rest while the musicians performed the second sonata from Dario Castello’s Primo Libro de Sonate Concertante in Stilo Moderno (1621). According to the programme, the choice of music sought to explore the dramatic contrasts between the sombre and the joyful in Monteverdi’s work. From that point of view, this sonata worked absolutely beautifully, because it alternated between playful lightness and seriousness. Castello, apparently, was one of the composers who helped to push and develop the kind of music being produced in Venice at this date, and it’s fitting that his sonata led into the next selection of madrigals, which came from Monteverdi’s ambitious and dramatic Ottavo libro, explicitly subtitled ‘madrigals of love and war’, bringing that dichotomy right into the heart of his music.
And these madrigals really do sound different from the seventh volume, samples of which we’d heard at the beginning. The Ottavo libro was published in 1638, just two years before the first performance of Ulisse and they no longer sound like troubadour lute-songs but instead have the intensity and drama of operatic discussions. The voices are used in different ways too: in the first madrigal, O sia tranquillo il mare, Dahlin and Gonzalez appeared to be in a dialogue, sharing their misery over the absent Phyllis, rather than both inhabiting the same ‘voice’. There are amazing effects, like the agonised crying out of certain words, repeated over and over: mai (never), for example, thrown out again and again in ringing tones. And melody becomes more important than harmony in getting across the message.
The second madrigal from the Ottavo libro was yet another deliciously tortured one, this time Ardo e scoprir (‘I burn, and alas dare not reveal’). Again it was full of drama – the singers’ pain suddenly exploding into a chorus of soccorso (‘help!’), and then being tamped down into a more contemplative mood. The range in these madrigals is also broader than in the earlier ones; Gonzalez Toro spent a lot of Ardo e scoprir in the low, shimmering baritone depths. As I know precious little about madrigals, I hadn’t ever thought they could be as operatic as this, and I loved this second set far more than the first, even though the first had been very pretty. They were followed by another instrumental piece, this time the Sonata settima by Giovanni Battista Fontana, a Brescian composer and virtuoso violinist. His sonata is shot through with soaring strings, which weave together a cheerful dance and yet then, suddenly, pull the rug from under you: a single violin takes up a haunting phrase which pulls us back into the shadows again. But the end is full of renewed hope and optimism.
The first half ended with a couple of scenes from Monteverdi’s Ulisse, first performed in 1640 and benefitting from the same dramatic awareness that underlaid his eighth book of madrigals. First up was the scene in which Odysseus reveals his identity to his long-lost son Telemachus, who struggles to believe that this really is his father. It’s an emotional and affecting moment: Dahlin made a tentative and fearful Telemachus, his light clear voice perfect for a young man, while Gonzalez Toro drew on a previously-unsuspected gravity to sing the noble Odysseus himself. At the very moment when Telemachus believes, the characters fall into a duet – I was struck by the similarity of the language to that used two years later in Poppea‘s Pur ti miro. The spirit of the relationship is different, but the estranged father and son marvel at their reunion with phrases like ‘t’inchino o mio diletto’ (Telemachus) and ‘Ti stringo’ (Odysseus).
It was as if Gonzalez Toro felt he’d been serious for long enough, because he then swapped roles and took on that of the glutton Iro, who laments the death of his patrons, the Suitors. Gonzalez Toro is a fantastic comedian and he threw restraint to the wind, squealing and overacting as the foolish Iro, yet still bringing a touch of poignancy to this silly man’s dilemma. And, though he was definitely playing it for laughs, his vocal dexterity remained deeply impressive. The audience, who’d been very proper until that point, began to loosen up and giggle: it was a great way to wrap up the first part.
Part two kicked off with another madrigal from the Ottavo libro, this time Mentre vaga Angioletta (‘While the lovely angel delights every soul by singing’), which turned out to be a phenomenally sophisticated song that brought text and music intimately together. It began a cappella, with Gonzalez Toro singing alone (sublime!) and then, when he sang the words ‘musical spirit’, the organ joined him, very gently building up the sound. Then, at the end of the first verse, he sings of ‘eloquent and masterful harmony’ and on that line the harpsichord came in and so did Dahlin, their voices reflecting that very harmony. The rest of the song was dedicated to making their voices reflect exactly what was dictated in the text: ‘broken accents and twisted turns’, ‘murmuring’, ‘pauses and quiet breaths’, ‘shooting and darting’, all demonstrated in a virtuoso demonstration of contrasts between fast and slow, calm and frenzied, high and low. It was magnificent.
Then we had our final madrigal, one so famous that even I’ve heard it several times. It was Zefiro torna, a lovely celebration of the returning spring, full of joy and hope, from Monteverdi’s Libro nono of madrigals and ‘canzonette‘. It was just the two voices and the harpsichord, weaving in and out of one another; yet there was still a moment of playful musical experimentation in the second verse when the music describes a sunrise. It was the kind of musical ‘painting’ that I enjoyed so much in Haydn’s Creation.
Finally there were some scenes from Poppea, with two versions of the Overture. I was driven half-mad trying to decide if the Venetian or Neapolitan overture is the one I usually hear at the opera and am still not sure (is it the Venetian one?). Our first scene was the comic duet of two sleepy guards grousing outside Poppea’s house; the second, the singing contest. I’d been fascinated to hear how the latter would pan out, having assumed that Dahlin, with the lighter voice, would be Nerone. But no! Gonzalez Toro took on the role of the emperor, and hearing his almost-baritone against Dahlin’s much lighter tenor as Lucano completely changed the usual mood of the duet. This was just a game, with the two men subtly trying to outdo each other’s vocal glamour. There was none of the sensuality that you often have in duets where Nerone is sung by a higher voice, either by a mezzo or a countertenor. Sung by a lower voice like this, the emperor sounds older, more in control, more grounded. It would be interesting to watch a whole performance with a low tenor Nerone, to see how it affects the drama.
And there was an encore, a motet, Iste confesso, which was very beautiful and surprisingly upbeat, perhaps chosen as a final proof of that tension in Monteverdi’s work between the sober and the playful. But now I just want to say a few words about the singers. I was very happy to hear Dahlin in real life, and his sweet, clear tenor was just right for this simple music. He seemed rather reserved on stage, although maybe that’s just because anyone would look reserved next to Gonzalez Toro once he gets going. Their two voices fitted perfectly together – a gorgeous match – shading up and down from a common middle ground. As my friend said, with an Italianate flash of poetic spirit, they were (appropriately) like two halves of a divided soul.
I must stress – I was amazed by Gonzalez Toro’s voice: its strength; its black velvet sheen; its commanding grandeur. I haven’t really heard him sing ‘serious’ music before, because I’ve only ever seen him as a comic nurse or servant. He has extraordinary range and power, with a very strong lower register that dipped into baritone regions several times. He was truly the highlight of my night. Will someone please find a leading role for the man? (I know tenor primi uomini are rare in Baroque opera, but Pergolesi’s Salustia has a really good tenor part.) Ah, it was just such a treat to see these musicians and singers in such an intimate venue. If you needed further evidence as to the evening’s quality, my friend is a trained Baroque musician with a particular specialism in this period, and he was blown away by it. We felt tremendously lucky.
The great news is that, until the beginning of July, you can hear this performance for yourself, because it was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and will be up on iPlayer for four weeks at the time of writing. As for me, I’m now looking forward to my next trip to St John’s on 13 June, for something a little later: Mozart’s Apollo and Hyacinthus…