> Claudio Monteverdi - Banquet of the Senses [PQ]: Classical CD Reviews- Oct 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643)
Banquet of the Senses:
Madrigali Erotici e Spirituali

Consort of Musicke:
Emma Kirkby, Evelyn Tubb (sopranos)
Mary Nichols (alto)
Andrew King, Joseph Cornwell (tenors)
Simon Grant (bass)
Directed by Anthony Rooley (lute)
With running commentary by Anthony Rooley
Filmed in the Palazzo Te, Mantua, 1986?


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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 her up.

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.

Peter Quantrill

see also review by Kirk McElhearn

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