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Monteverdi The Full Monteverdi A new Monteverdi opera?

Quarto Libro dei Madrigali Ah dolente partita; Cor mio, mentre vi miro; Cor mio, non mori? e mori!; Sfogava con le stelle; Volgea l'anima mia soavemente; Anima mia perdona; Che se tu se'il cor mio; Luci serene e chiare; La piaga c'ho nel core; Voi pur da me partite, anima dura; A un giro sol de' begl'occhi lucenti; Ohimè, se tanto amate; Io mi son giovinetta; Quel augellin che canta; Non più guerra pietate; Si ch'io vorrei morire; Anima dolorosa che vivendo; Anima del cor mio; Longe da te cor mio; Paign' e sospira

I Fagiolini
Anna Crookes, Carys Lane, Clare Wilkinson, Nicholas Mulroy, Matthew Brook and Giles Underwood with six actors
Staged by John La Bouchardière
The Old Royal Naval College Greenwich
, 2 June 2004 & Conway Hall, London, July 2005

- - the most demanding project we have ever undertaken and central to it has been how to make the subject matter mean something to a contemporary listener - - in an age when music such as this can too easily find itself an accompaniment to dinner, there is a certain need turn the tables - - (Robert Hollingworth)

Always looking for new ways to bring early music to new audiences, I Fagiolini (director Robert Hollingworth) have followed their Amfiparnasso project with a radical presentation of Monteverdi's great Quarto Libro dei Madrigali, which they are taking on tour, first to the Cheltenham Festival next week (all details at www.ifagiolini.com).

They presented the Quarto Libro in an unconventional way, conceived by John La Bouchardière (with a catchy but inappropriate title seemingly taken from Edward Seckerson !) and intended to make it come to life, and promising 'a new way of experiencing this music' - - trying to allow the music to work to its full expressive power.

There was an invited audience to this dress rehearsal. We all sat 'on stage' at the high tables at the west end of the famous Painted Hall of The Old Royal Naval College. The hall was open to the public that afternoon and so Greenwich tourists too found themselves unexpectedly participating in an exceptional and unique event!

It began, intriguingly and auspiciously, with voices so loud and sonorous that I thought we were hearing a recording before the cast came 'on stage' ! But this was an illusion, caused by the wonderful acoustics of this cube space, which enhanced all that we were to hear and achieved a marvellous blend of the voices of the singers, whom we gradually realised were already sitting at the tables amongst us, widely separated from each other.

Musically it was a triumph of memory, and I Fagiolini achieved too wonders of ensemble and coordination without eye contact or the possibility of guidance from one of their number, which is common with madrigal groups.

I do not know if Monteverdi envisaged any of his Books being performed straight through? These five part madrigals contain some of 'the most bitter, plangent music' of its time, predominantly slow - we had to wait some 35 minutes before a brisker tempo brought some variety. I Fagiolini's conceit is that we listeners are ordinary people 'in a restaurant or some other public place', finding ourselves drawn into enjoying 'a compelling physical and voyeuristic experience', watching six couples go through 'eroticism, suspicion and break-up' of their relationships. A well known critic near me found himself facing across the table a young woman who suddenly broke into tears and seemed to need comforting; certainly an unusual early music experience!

At this public preview there were no programme notes and we were told nothing about the music, or the content of the texts, which are mostly 'introverted poems by Guarini', often with 'a strongly erotic flavour more intense than that of the usual pastoral verse' (New Grove). I have ordered a copy of the scores with English translations.

I am not clear what information may be made available to the future audiences on tour? Robert Hollingworth promises me that at least they will not be plunged into darkness, as in last year's Inside Monteverdi weekend at South Bank! But do the words matter in this entertainment? The emotions represented are necessarily generalised, and I suspect most people will be satisfied by listening to music in a novel situation, without worrying too much about the purported detail.

Many will be content just to enjoy the novelty of watching young people ostensibly in crisis - though not placed in any dramatic context, as they are in TV soap operas - acting out the suffering of their fraught heterosexual relationships (no gaiety or gays in this show, which luxuriates in gloom).

But will they leave The Full Monte curious to continue to explore Monteverdi, alongside The Full Monty - - "a telling study of desperation without the misery, of loss without the moroseness" (IMDb)?

Musically The Full Monteverdi is fine, and likely to prove tempting to voyeurs amongst concert goers, and whilst I do feel some unease about this way of attempting to popularise some of the greatest vocal music of the 17th Century, it was finally a pleasure to hear so very assured and emotionally involveda complete performance of "a publication of tremendous historical significance, summarizing - - the views of one of western music's great musical geniuses toward the music which proceeded him - - some of Monteverdi's finest writing" (Todd M. McComb).

Peter Grahame Woolf

The Full Monteverdi Rian Evans The Guardian July 8, 2004
- - director John la Bouchardiere's delicious conceit is to take the intimacy of early 17th century polyphony and explore both affairs of the heart and the vicarious pleasure of eavesdropping with all the intensity of physical theatre. - - The pungency and passion of Monteverdi's Fourth Book of Madrigals means that it does indeed carry the emotional weight that was shortly to characterise his operas. Using the sequence of 19 madrigals to trace the progress of a lovers' tiff in an hour-long scenario was imaginative as well as historically revealing.- - Each of the Fagiolini singers was partnered by an actor, showing six couples going through the tortuous process of parting to mesmerising effect. - - Even if there were moments when proximity to the exchanges was distinctly uneasy, to feel the physicality of the music - - made this an unforgettable experience.

The Full Monteverdi revisited

I Fagiolini at Conway Hall, London 19 July 2005

Robert Hollingworth, director
Anna Crookes & Carys Lane, sopranos
Clare Wilkinson, mezzo-soprano
Nicholas Mulroy, tenor
Matthew Brook, baritone
Giles Underwood, bass
Mark Denham, Pano Masti, Alan Mooney, actors
Gina Peach, Katharine Peachey, Anna Skye, actresses

Staged and directed by John La Bouchardière
[Illustration from performance at The Daffodil, Cheltenham]

Critics are the wrong people to criticise this show. Before seeing The Full Monteverdi again I talked with people waiting to go in. They proved to be not regular concertgoers, and some knew nothing of Monteverdi or his madrigals and were uncertain what sort of entertainment to expect.

The printed programme, with cast names & biographies, and notes by the musical and stage directors, was - for undisclosed "different reasons" - distributed only afterwards!

At my allocated place at a table in Conway Hall I found myself next to intelligent young people who go to pop for their entertainment and were apprehensive about the evening; there was a family connection with one of the actors.

I Fagiolini was selling emotion by courtesy of Monteverdi, music 'stripped away to a nucleus of expressive intensity', and doing so most effectively. My neighbours found themselves emotionally involved in the simulated break-ups of the fellow diners' romances!

I took the opportunity to follow the words bilingually and, sometimes, the interweaving of the voices in the score - not quite what the organisers would have wanted.

Again I marvelled at the wondrous music, and the extraordinary skill of Robert Hollingworth's singers (the same ones reassembled, as listed above) who maintained perfect ensemble telepathically in the far corners of the auditorium, acting relationship crises the while. Again, one was amazed by the acoustics of Conway Hall, an under-used musical treasure in the capital. From my corner position it was good to be near the bass, who supplied a solid foundation, and near the contralto who brought out one of the inner parts. Balance was inevitably variably imperfect, but you don't lose the upper voices.

I felt that the actors had a strange part to play; they were not mime specialists and there was a limited range of moving away, coming together for temporary consolation, and finally parting. One chair was thrown down and there was a lot of noisy storming out and returning; presumably part of the producer's designed aural picture, since silent trainers would have been suitable footwear to go with their informal clothing on the hot summer evening.

On second viewing the 'shock effect' of finding oneself in public, embarrassingly close to people in emotional crisis, was inevitably diminished; also, we are now all de-sensitized to sharing on tube and bus domestic and business privacies with people who unabashedly force us to share their mobile phone conversations!

The performance was received rapturously, and deservedly so. It was a unique experiment and, on its own terms, a triumphantly successful one.

I Fagiolini is embarking on a Monteverdi series with Chandos next year.

The Full Monteverdi on DVD Naxos DVD 2.110224 [1997, 60 mins]

I prompted the making of I Fagiolini's successful first DVD [I Fagiolini/Orazio Vecchi Chandos CHDVD 5029].

Would Chandos try to make a DVD of the Madrigals Book 4 from this innovatory concept, I wondered in summer 2005, a restaurant filming of a performance, live with the spatial effects and maybe even the atmospheric noises?

Alas, no, it turns out!

The DVD for the 2007 Christmas market and cinema (Naxos not Chandos) has gone far from the nice original conceit - - "a unique experiment in music-theatre, based on Monteverdi's Fourth book of Madrigals, exploring the simultaneous break-up of six couples in an actual restaurant, with the performers and audience entirely integrated". [see picture above taken at a performance at The Daffodil, Cheltenham]

The ambition is a high one: - "the promise of internation film distribution should pay dividends - - a defining moment in our history" (Robert Hollingworth in Early Music Today - cover picture).

What they have done, instead of putting the touring café show on film, has been to make a studio film, with additional location shots to try and persuade us that these singers and actors are real people with real outside lives, whose amatory relationships happen to be breaking up simultaneously... The apologia/rationalisation by La Bouchadière for this is totally unconvincing and simply doesn't work.

What I Fagiolini have done instead is to make a studio film, with additional location shots to try and persuade us that these singers and actors are real people with real outside lives, whose amatory relationships happen to be breaking up simultaneously.

The apologia/rationalisation by La Bouchardière in the booklet with the DVD is totally unconvincing and simply doesn't work. The makers delude themselves that they are doing Monteverdi lovers any favours. La Bouchardière's Monteverdi has become frankly risible and indeed embarrassing to watch.

The visuals totally dominate the experience, and the unvarying dubbed studio-recorded sound does not relate to the changing venues of the filmed pictures - e.g. one pair at a baby's christening; another of the singers sitting on the loo... [See trailer of the film]

It left me, as the most enduring and most positive memory of the whole exercise, the stunning coordination of the voices (singing from memory and without a conductor) across wide distances at the Greenwich Painted Hall.

By now, the singers of I Fagiolini must know their Monteverdi (at any rate Book 4) better than anyone else in the world! So, for our illustration here, I have chosen Robert Hollingworth with his singers at the sound recording session (above right).

I look forward to receiving I Fagiolini's Monteverdi CDs for review.* Only The first has been released [Chandos Chaconne Flaming Heart CHA 0730] , useful for comparison, having some tracks from this same Book 4 - hear on line snatches of each madrigal - but we will not be returning to this spurious Full Monteverdi DVD.**

For I Fagiolini in dramatic mode, buy instead their unpretentious, but completely successful farcical L'Amfiparnaso of Vecchio http://www.musicalpointers.co.uk/festivals/uk/Lufthanza2004.html#vecchio.

Peter Grahame Woolf


* Review December 2007 of Chandos Flaming Heart CD

**See review of The Full Monteverdi in the making by Allan Kozinn in the New York Times

John La Bouchardière says there should be a video clip of The Full Monteverdi at http://www.lincolncenter.org/, but I have confirmed with a colleague that it doesn't work. [Editor]