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The Agony and the Ecstacy

New York
Peter Jay Sharp Theater, Juilliard School
10/05/2017 -  
Claudio Monteverdi: Altri Canti di Marte – Lamento della ninfa – Ohimé, ch’io cado – Gira il nemico – Il ballo delle ingrate
Carlo Farina: Pavana Seconda
Dario Castello: Sonata XVI

Onadek Winan, Kelsey Lauritano, Kady Evanyshyn, John Chongyoon Noh, Joshua Blue, Andrew Munn, Tamara Banjesevic, Alex Rosen, Natalia Kutateladze, Shaked Bar (singers), Matthew Gilmore, Zachary Gonder, Alysia L. Johnson, Alex Soulliere, My’kal Stromite (dancers)
Juilliard415 period instrument ensemble, William Christie (Conductor, Harpsichord)
Zack Winokur (Stage Director), Peter Farrow (Choreographer)

Z. Gonder from Il ballo delle ingrate (© Rosalie O’Connor)

Blow, wind, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!/You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout/Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks!...
William Shakespeare, King Lear (published in 1608)

Rage and blow indeed! Against those thoughtless gods who forgot to place Claudio Monteverdi and William Shakespeare in the same chamber. Both were esteemed in their time, both were inventors of music and words, both overlapped in chronology (Monteverdi’s Il ballo della ingate and Shakespeare’s Lear published the same year), both humanists, and both amongst the most outstanding artists in history

And they never collaborated and apparently never met.

The latter is supposition, since Shakespeare loved Italy, set half-a-dozen plays in Italy, and probably traveled to Italy with his theater company. (He even used Monteverdi’s benefactor, the Duke of Gonzaga, in Hamlet’s play within a play.) And just in case Shakespeare needed another tragedy, last night’s Monteverdi evening at Juilliard, led by the esteemed William Christie, shows just what a “heavenly harmony” (from The Taming of the Shrew) that would have been.

As the first half of the program showed, Monteverdi’s aim to make words and music emotionally powerful, got caught in a fishing net of Italian imagery: Love is war, war is love etc etc. Not that Claudio Monteverdi with his unending invention, was mired down with this unending conceit. In the first madrigal from his Altri Canti di Marte, the four singers and the full Juilliard415 ensemble gave full-throated passion to the torments of love.

Following that, Monteverdi’s Nymph’s Lament was as much drama as pure madrigal. The three men gave introduction to the problems of the nymph. And when soprano Onadek Wynan entered on the stage for her solo (followed by the men) it could have been musical Shakespeare.

But not as theatrical as the extraordinary monodrama sung by Ms. Winan, Ohimé, ch’io cado. The conceit of lost love begins with the problem for a foot-doctor: “Alas I tumble down, my foot slips again just as it did before.” But we know this is a metaphor for old passions and lost loves.

And with Ms. Winan’s voice, it is a passion which–as Monteverdi wanted–goes straight to the heart. For the French soprano in the first half was not so notable for her voice as for that searing Monteverdi passion, the sense that every word was an arrow.

For the first two works, one could have said that her soprano voice could be almost strident, that the purity of her intonation and melodic line might have gone off the rails. Yet would the composer have wanted anything else? Monteverdi was not the precursor for Verdi and Puccini so much as for Mascagni and Leoncavallo, pure emotions, upsurging, piercing.

In the meantime, the three men continued with a bit of slapstick. John Chongyoon Noh, Joshua Blue, and Andrew Nunn parodied the whole love/battle metaphor with mock horses, mock fleeing, mock attempts to save the world from that terrible villain Love. Like Shakespeare, Monteverdi enjoyed following tragedy with comedy, and here the comedy was (in Dante’s words) divine.

This first half had two instrumental pieces by Monteverdi’s contemporaries, both conducted by our favorite iconic 17th Century conductor William Christie. He stayed at the harpsichord, but even his slightest hand motion led us to his early Baroque expertise. The two orchestral works by Dario Castello and Carlo Farina were pleasant exhibitions, though hardly in Monteverdi’s orbit.

(Incidentally, could one say that Farina was the first cereal composer?)

This is, of course, the month of Monteverdi operas, with John Eliot Gardiner conducting the only surviving works for the White Light Festival. Yet one could include another “opera” of sorts, the pastiche/masque/ballet/drama from Dance of the Ungrateful Maidens.

Calling out its so-called sexism (women are thrown into the Underworld because they have no sympathy for their lovers) is irrelevant. The poem takes place at the gates of hell, Pluto or Satan or the Devil, is a sympathetic old guy, and the story is silly.

But what a production we had here. The pleading at the gates of the Underworld, Tamara Banjesevic provided a deft opening for Monteverdi’s original Ballo. Cupid (endearingly portrayed by Tamara Banjesevic) and Venus (an elegant Kelsey Lauritano), were touching, and when Alex Rosen–a mellifluous, lyrical, never-threatening Pluto–arrived, allowing the “ungrateful dames” to temporarily exit his sulfurous gates, then the spectacle began.

How does one describe it? This is opera, this is ballet (though hardly as garish as French ballet of that time), it was probably spectacle at its 1608 showing–and it is pure emotion.

When the dancers came out, it was not ornate ballet. Much of their movements became replicas of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, with the few real ballet movements almost incidental.

Yet this only added to the “reality” of the mythic piece. And that only introduced five minutes of the most exquisite moments I have ever seen on this stage. Onadek Wynan was one of the “ungrateful women”, and when she rose up for her final solo, one felt initially touched and then...

Well, then, more genius from Monteverdi. Instead of ending with a Gluck-like finale, the orchestra was silent, the other women had an a capella chorus of mournful simplicity...

And the stage was dark. No more needed to be said or sung, for, through in Hamlet’s words, it had “put me in a towering passion”, that was augmented with lamentation and deep deep appreciation for such a performance.

Harry Rolnick



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