Do not be deceived
by the fact that this is a budget price
CD. It is actually one of the key releases
in the Monteverdi canon and as such
it is an essential purchase
for all 17th century opera
and madrigal enthusiasts. Let me explain.
Monteverdi is one of
the most important composers in the
history of music. He was born into an
environment where the contrapuntal style
of Palestrina was still at its height.
The problem of writing for many voices
with the corresponding musical structure
and melodic interest had all but been
solved. However there was a missing
ingredient. The music often lacked ‘expression’
and ‘life.’ This is not to belittle
the achievements of the great polyphonic
choirs – only to indicate that it was
not possible to display individual emotions
in this kind of musical ensemble. Monteverdi
himself wrote much fine music in this
earlier style – in fact it amounts to
some nine volumes. But there was a sense
in which he did not consider them satisfactory.
At the same time, composers
in Florence were experimenting with
a new form of music. They harked back
to the old Greek dramas by giving expression
to individual emotions and thoughts
by use of a single voice, singing a
melody with instrumental accompaniment.
These perhaps were the very first ‘operas’
although much of it was dry and still
lacked ‘living’ expression.
It was Claudio Monteverdi
who began to change the rules radically.
He felt that he could not just tinker
with the old conventions. And no academic
rules were set in stone. Everything
could be changed in order to make the
music realistic. This resulted in tying
the words so closely to the melody that
it would be like ‘a soulless body’ if
the words were removed. It was to be
the libretto itself that dictated what
choice of notes and harmony were used.
The music would evolve from the particular
sense of the dramatic. The orchestra
was to be used for dramatic effect.
‘Pizzicato’ is believed to have been
one of his inventions; trills were used
to add interest. Monteverdi developed
a style of recitative that has never
really been bettered. The balance of
between words and music was supreme.
During the first half
of the 17th century Monteverdi
composed a series of full-length music
dramas. These are regarded as the foundation
of what we now call ‘opera’. It appears
that between the composition of Orfeo
(1607) and the L’Incoronazione di
Poppea (1642) there are some sixteen
or so other works for stage. Many of
these are now lost. Furthermore there
is a huge gap in our understanding of
the development of his musical language
due to this loss. Effectively musical
scholars have a lacunae of about 33
years during which the composer was
busy creating new stage works about
which very little is actually known.
What this present CD
delivers is a few surviving links in
this broken chain. It allows us to glimpse
what the operas were like in the intervening
The first work is the
Tempro la Cetra (1619). This
is effectively an aria in the sense
understood by the Florentine composers
of the day; it is a set of strophic
variations. It sets four verses. The
singer develops his theme whilst the
continuo plays much the same music throughout.
The argument of the work is the singer’s
desire to sing praises to Mars but he
is unable to do this because his heart
is full of love. The vocal line becomes
more complex as the aria progresses.
Yet throughout the exposition of the
story the balance of the parts is near
perfect. This is a fine introduction
to Monteverdi’s operatic style.
The ‘ballet’ Tirsi
e Clori (1615) was composed for
the people of Mantua. It is not actually
dramatic music although composed for
the stage. In fact it is quite passive
in its style – a modern reviewer would
say ‘laid back.’ There are three sections
to this lovely work. The piece opens
with Thyrsis attempting to persuade
Chloris to dance and naturally she is
playing hard to get! Thyrsis is quite
enthusiastic in his gay song, however
Chloris is much more subdued. The duet
between the lovers is particularly gorgeous.
There is a small ‘walk on’ part for
a chorus of shepherds with their instruments.
The importance of this work is the obvious
move away from the Florentine recitative
to that of a well controlled and balanced
Il ballo delle ingrate
is by far the most substantial work
on this CD. It was composed in 1608
for the entertainment of the Mantua
court. It is written in what is regarded
as the ‘French’ style. The ballet opens
with a brief instrumental prelude followed
by a dialogue between Venus and Amor.
Here the latter tries to persuade Venus
to have a chat with Pluto and effect
the release of all women who have ‘who
have preserved hard hearts’ against
their lovers to be allowed to return
to the earth. Of course, Venus is successful
and the ‘ingrate,’ as these ladies were
called, return to the surface of the
earth to warn the matrons in the audience
of their impending fate! All very politically
incorrect but nonetheless charming and
thoroughly enjoyable. And the bass,
Pluto, is absolutely divine!
The last work on this
CD is also perhaps the best known –
the Il combattimento di Tancredi
e Clorinda (1624) – The Fight
of Tancred and Clorinda. This work
which is really a mini opera was published
in the eighth book of madrigals. Monteverdi
himself points out that this was a ‘concert’
opera - they were not meant to be performed
with scenery, props or costumes. The
setting is supposed to be a battlefield!
The programme notes
cite the reasons why this is probably
the most important work on this CD.
Here we find a true music-drama. There
is a "vastly expanded palette of
orchestral dramatics, the new vocabulary
of string techniques (including pizzicato)
planted myriad seeds for the future
of Monteverdi’s dramatic works and for
the future of opera in general."
The warlike nature
of the work makes it totally different
from the preceding three somewhat pastoral
pieces. It is from this root that the
great music dramas of Verdi and Wagner
would one day burst into flower.
This is a particularly
gorgeous CD. Each work is a little gem,
if not a miniature masterpiece. The
performance by Tragicomedia in this
1992 recording is tremendous. I let
a friend of mine listen to this CD.
He is not particularly impressed by
opera in general and Monteverdi in particular.
However after hearing these works he
is converted. I will have to watch my
copy of this CD or it may disappear!