A Singer's Notes by Keith Kibler

A Singer’s Notes 110: A Blessed Weekend — Immersion in Monteverdi

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Claudio Monteverdi, engraving, from "Fiori_poetici," 1644
Claudio Monteverdi, engraving, from “Fiori_poetici,” 1644

Hours and hours of the composer’s music in a 24-hour span. I’ve heard a lot of bad Monteverdi—valiant efforts, not enough skill. The style is fundamentally performer-dependent. In Aston Magna’s Monteverdi concert on Saturday at Simon’s Rock and the Boston Early Music Festival’s performances of the Vespers and Orfeo Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, we were able to hear these works with first-rate artists who have the right voices and the style under their belts. Half of the time, I was listening to duets by two tenors, a hallmark of Monteverdi’s larger works. These were brilliantly undertaken by Frank Kelley and William Hite in the Aston Magna concert. Cascades of notes, sometimes only a beat apart, in a rapid, running imitation, took the breath away. Passages of this kind—what I might call “solo duetting”—occur in Orfeo as well. The very best example is in the Vespers. Most of the great motet Duo Seraphim is a hot friction of harmonic ecstasy. The two tenors in this case were Aaron Sheehan and Charles Blandy. They gave in every way the best performance of this blissful piece I have heard. It had the right singers; their voices different enough to make the suspensions vibrate. And there was structure to their singing, one delicious clash after another for just long enough. Each harmonic adventure seemed to make sense, but also to come out of nowhere. The motet had more direction than I have heard it elsewhere. One had the knowledge that what they were doing was right, and finally you were hearing it as you had imagined it to be. Both of these excellent artists appeared in the gentle, buoyant Orfeo chamber opera performance on Sunday afternoon, Mr. Sheehan singing the title role. In the extravagant “Possente Spirto” his gentleness, what I might call the kindness in his voice, went to the heart. The production itself trusted the text of the work and let it be, especially in its way of moving. I have always found the last two acts of Orfeo  harder to pace. There is much darkness; the music can seem aloof. The introduction of a mime did not help. This worn-out idea lessened the final moments of the opera for me, superb efforts by the singing principles notwithstanding. This was a small blemish. The production had an ease and lightness which seemed to float on air, and it left me in a state of deep contentment.

Maybe most wonderful of all in this rare weekend was the musical letter, written by Monteverdi, given voice by soprano Dominique Labelle, and subtly accompanied by Catherine Liddell at the lute. Readers will know that Ms. Labelle’s singing is important to me. It is as if she has no technique. That’s right: I said no technique. She doesn’t need a technique, because what she hears she can immediately do. You hear her imagination without filter when she sings. She sat on a small stool, and went through the words, full of passion, sometimes regret, in a way that demanded that I listen; I had no choice. What more can be asked of a singer?

Aaron’s and Charley’s Duo Seraphim and Dominque’s Lettera amorosa will now stand as highlights in my memory—among those few things that I will not forget. My heartfelt thanks to all in both ensembles who made these twenty-four hours a kind of better world.

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