Early Music and Baroque

Aston Magna, June 18, 2016: Love and Lamentation, Monteverdi’s Legacy in Rome

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Erin Headley playing the lirone
Erin Headley playing the lirone

Aston Magna,
June 18, 2016

Claudio Monteverdi – Prologue from L’Orfeo
Lament of Arianna (1614)

Marco Marazzoli – Elena invecchiata, a vanitas cantata on the aging Helen of Troy

Luigi Rossi – Lament of Zaida
Scenes from Orfeo (1647)

Instrumental music by Biagio Marini and Luigi Rossis

Erin Headley, guest director; Kristen Watson and Nell Snaidas, sopranos; Daniel Stepner, baroque violin; Erin Headley, lirone/viola da gamba; Laura Jeppesen, violin/viola da gamba; Catherine Liddell, theorbo; Michael Sponseller, harpsichord.

Scholars, musicians, and audiences, as they explore the music of the first half of the seventeenth century, keep coming back to the giant figure of Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), just as in later periods they tend to orbit J. S. Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Wagner, and Stravinsky. In one respect this is justified by the quality and originality of Monteverdi’s music. In others we must acknowledge our fragmentary and disproportionate understanding of the music of all times and places, realizing that we should really know more of the music of Matthiesen, Graupner, and Hasse, C. P. E. Bach, Cherubini, and Scriabin, to name only a few. In the present case, Erin Headley justifiably points out that much of the work of two of the other important composers in this program, Luigi Rossi and Marco Marazzoli, has been hidden away in the Vatican Library—in manuscript, not in printed editions, the form in which Monteverdi purposely circulated and preserved his work.

On the one hand, this program is about the lirone, a viola da gamba-like instrument designed to accompany the human voice with chords produced by its nine to twenty strings. On the other, the program explores the connection between Monteverdi’s achievement in dramatic music and composers of opera and dramatic scenes, or secular cantatas, in Rome. While opera continued to flourish in Venice, Florence, and other centers, Rome, as the seat of the Church, gave the genre its own stamp. The creative center in Rome was the Palazzo Barberini, the seat of the papal family during the reign of Urban VIII (1623-1644). Various members were opera enthusiasts, and their great wealth supported sumptuous productions at the palazzo and other venues. Luigi Rossi (1597-1662) and Marco Marazzoli (1602-1662) were especially important in the Barberini circle as composers of both dramatic and religious music. In her note Ms. Headley stresses the close relationship between the secular and the religious. Christian ethical concerns colored the psychological and moral treatment of characters drawn from pagan mythology or the Muslim world, giving these theatrical entertainments an inherent moral seriousness.

The program Ms. Headley has devised for Aston Magna combines famous and typical excerpts from Monteverdi’s early operas with cantatas and excerpts by Marazzoli and Rossi, mostly laments, to bring out these qualities in the Roman works. They do, nonetheless, exhibit some communalities of theme and treatment with Monteverdi’s works for the very different culture of the Gonzaga court. The Lament of Ariadne, abandoned by Theseus on Naxos, is the only surviving part of Monteverdi’s great early success of 1608. It is thought that it may have been a later addition, interpolated by Monteverdi to provide material favorable to the talents of his lead singer, who indeed made tears flow at the premiere. In any case, with the rest of the opera lost, the Lamento d’Arianna has acquired its own place in the repertory as a set piece—a model, in fact, for the secular solo cantatas of later composers. Elena invecchiata is Helen of Troy’s lament for her faded beauty, with a moralizing treatment of the transience of physical gifts. In the Lament of Zaida, a Turkish woman laments her lover Mustafa’s death at sea. The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice became embedded in the foundations of opera because the protagonist’s identity as the inventor of music and the simple, dramatic crises in the story. Librettists and composers continued to make their own variations on the basic story, so simply and powerfully told at the beginning and end of its vogue, by Monteverdi and Gluck. Rossi’s Orfeo included many elaborations. The excerpts included in this concert matched the climaxes of Monteverdi’s version, omitting the complications introduced by his librettist, Francesco Buti.

Rossi’s music reflected a character all its own. It is deeply imbued with feeling in a sensuous, physical way, and this makes it eminently accessible in a way Monteverdi’s is not. If Monteverdi is a Beethoven, Luigi Rossi is a Weber or a Mendelssohn. The music could not have been sung and played with more feeling and elegance. Following last year’s unforgettable Monteverdi program, sung by the more seasoned members of the group, including the great Dominique Labelle, Frank Kelley, and William Hite, and others before it, I don’t believe that there is any other American group that understands Monteverdi better than Aston Magna. They know that the delivery of the madrigals should be intimate and not too aggressive, and this intimacy applies to the operas as well. In this program Kristen Watson and Nell Snaidas showed themselves entirely in command of the subtle Aston Magna aesthetic, consistently singing with beauty and style. They were well matched, with Watson projecting a more brilliant soprano to Snaidas’ rich, mezzo-ish tone. While Watson entered immediately into the dramatic treatment of Monteverdi’s melodic line, Snaidas dwelt in the melody, spinning wonderful long, arching lines with dramatic expression emerging in the moment. The singers’ approaches were quite different, but complementary.

Daniel Stepner and Laura Jeppesen contributed strong, energetic playing, either both with violins or with Ms. Jeppesen with the viola da gamba. Erin Headley and she exchanged the gamba when needed. The sound of the lirone is subtle, and so was Headley’s playing. Renowned as one of the few masters of the instrument, she provided rich harmony in the middle voices without pushing herself to the front. Occasionally, almost in solo mode, the lirone produced a sound recalling the harmonies of a chamber organ, Otherwise, she provided a sensitive, nuanced accompaniment to the voices of Snaidas and Watson and a delicate but rich harmonic support for the instrumental ensembles. With her theorbo Catherine Liddell provided an energetic rhythmic factor as well as a lower plucked extension for the lirone. Michael Sponseller with his impeccable playing of the harpsichord added further richness to the continuo and a strong musical presence.

All the values we most cherish in Aston Magna were amply present in this memorable concert: scholarship, musicality, and finely cultivated taste.

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