This richly entertaining disc has a fairly didactic
purpose at heart: to perform madrigals by Monteverdi in the setting
for which they were written and the style of their original performance.
Nine such madrigals, of varyingly ‘erotic and spiritual’ content, are
interspersed with commentary by Rooley about the circumstances of their
composition and performance.
The rippling, seductive scales of Quel augellin
open the disc. At least, I presume they are meant to be seductive and
not prayerful, but those without texts will have to make up their own
minds for there are no subtitles. A table laden with goodies stands
at the end of a courtyard; Kirkby et al appear and ‘sing’ the
madrigal while making eyes at each other around the table. The suspicion
that they are miming becomes certainty as, at the conclusion of the
madrigal, the acoustic is faded out and into the acoustic of the courtyard
so that we can hear them clank the goblets they have raised in a toast.
Anthony Rooley suddenly bounds into view and says ‘Hello! I’m Anthony
Rooley and I’m a Monteverdi madrigal enthusiast’.
There’s only one word for these goings-on, and it’s
camp. Camp as Christmas, camp as a row of tents, camp as you like. If
camp doesn’t ring your bell, read no further. But if it does, and you
can put up with the miming and lack of texts, this disc offers singing
as idiomatic as you could wish for, with stunning backdrops and informative,
intelligent commentary. I suspect it wasn’t just Rooley’s pet project
but the singers’ too, for they have evidently absorbed his ideas about
the stagings of the madrigals to the point where they enact them with
enthusiasm and conviction. I think their stylised nature is too alien
for modern viewers to understand how they could further enhance such
sophisticated music – but they are good fun, and you can always turn
the picture off.
Rooley has chosen a selection of secular and sacred
madrigals (mostly the former), in which Monteverdi’s imagination comes
up with ever more extraordinary novelties of harmony and word-painting
- what Rooley describes as ‘Monteverdi’’s pungent dissonances’. These
apparently got him into trouble with his hard-to-please employers -
he was finally dismissed by the Gonzaga family, in 1612, and left to
seek his fortune in libidinous Venice. The lost love and lovers of Ohime
protest their fate with ever more serpentine phrases which wind sinuously
around each other; radical departures from key and unprepared resolutions
of Sfogava con le stelle have to be heard to be believed.
The singers make expressive points even sharper with
carefully judged ‘expressive tuning’, bending a note up or down for
effect. This is only possible within the context of their very focused,
vibrato-lite voices. It might be heresy to suggest it, but even at this
stage of her career Kirkby’s voice was losing some of the unearthly
purity which had made it (and her) so famous; this would not matter
if Evelyn Tubb’s still-laser-bright top notes did not occasionally show
Describing the dramatic context for each subsequent
madrigal would spoil the surprise but I should draw your attention to
Parlo, misero. Scored for three upper voices, it might well have
been sung (implies Rooley in the preceding commentary) by courtesans,
‘who were acclaimed for their range of non-sexual accomplishments’.
The madrigal, to quote Rooley, ‘is filled with an urgent kind of wantonness…
Musical lines twist, turn, rise, climax and fall in exquisite abandon’.
Cue La Kirkby, Tubb and Nichols in diaphanous robes, miming to the madrigal
while draping themselves over each other and a convenient couch. A soft
light plays over them and reveals … perhaps more than you wanted to
see. This is porn for Emma Kirkby fans. For those that want it (have
dreamt of it for years?), here it is.
To carp at the low playing time is missing the point.
Not only is the DVD reasonably priced but you get more laughs and often
more insights per minute than in whole opera productions.
see also review
by Kirk McElhearn