Scholar-performer singers and instrumentalists bridge past and present in persuasive program of Italian early-Baroque works
Are love and war mutually exclusive terms? Not to those who’ve been married as long as I have, perhaps. And not to those able to “read between the lines” of Italian late-Renaissance poet Torquato Tasso’s epic poem, Gerusalemme liberata.
Friday evening’s program by NYS Baroque (aptly titled Songs of Love and War) afforded the listener a fresh look at the Tasso narrative that vividly recounts a duel-to-the-death by two armed warriors. Along the way, the poet weaves through countless metaphors and ironies (the combatants, unbeknownst to one-another, are lovers) until arriving at the bittersweet ending.
The story is brought to life within a dramatic musical setting by Claudio Monteverdi titled Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda—part of the composer’s colossal 8th Book of Madrigals (subtitled Songs of Love and War), which closed Friday’s program. The great Italian Renaissance-Baroque master fashioned the work as a cantata for three singers: a narrator (tenor Sumner Thompson); a warrior, Tancredi (tenor Aaron Sheehan) and his female lover, Clorinda, disguised as another warrior (soprano Laura Heimes). The singers are accompanied by strings and continuo.
The 11-piece period ensemble breathed life into this evocative work—capturing the drama, pathos, torment and heartbreak endemic to early Baroque opera (this cantata is, in essence, an unstaged tragic opera)—with a historically informed and brilliantly executed performance that faithfully and accurately depicted the manner and musical conventions of the period.
The narrator has the lion’s share of the work here, and Thompson produced a stunning vocal tour de force with a bold and dramatic intensity of tone and expressive delivery that did justice to Monteverdi’s customary stil concitato (excited style), with convincing fervor and fury. (One had only to watch the expression on Thompson’s face to grasp his level of commitment in this role.)
Thompson’s powerful operatic vocal presence, with its wide dynamic range and crisply articulated Italian diction, helped make this work appear as a timeless treasure that transcends the centuries-old writing to bridge past and present.
Heimes and Sheehan, in the more muted roles as the ill-fated lovers, complemented Thompson’s performance through faithful devotion to the dramatic elements in this cantata.
Heims paid great attention to nuances of dynamics and expression, particularly in her moment of ultimate resignation, with the touching words Amico, hai vinto (Friend, you have beaten me). Unfortunately, Heims’s diction throughout the evening, and to a lesser extent that of Sheehan, was difficult to grasp within the lively acoustical environment of the First Unitarian Universalist Society sanctuary. (Handouts with the printed text, along with the translation, were a great help to the listener.)
The attentive instrumental ensemble, led by Baroque violinist Julie Andrijeski, handsomely nourished Monteverdi’s concertato style writing, pitting the contrasting textures of voices and instruments suitably in early-Baroque style.
Tenors Thompson and Sheehan were joined by bass Steven Hrycelak (and continuo consisting of guitar, harp, violone and harpsichord) in a charming rendition of Monteverdi’s O mio bene—a gentle madrigal punctuated by stark use of augmented chords. The three male voices returned in Monteverdi’s Lamento della ninfa (this time with continuo comprising harp, theorbo and harpsichord), a hypnotic work set over a repeating four-note descending ground bass pattern that recalls Dido’s lament in Purcell’s When I am laid in earth. The three male voices blended well together, in spite of occasional pitch inconsistencies between the two tenors.
Hrycelak’s splendid bass-baritone was especially evident in Giulio Caccini’s Chi mi confort’ahime, one of the gems from the composer’s collection of airs titled Nuove musiche. Accompanied by continuo of theorbo and harp, Hrycelak drew some of the most enthusiastic responses of the evening from the audience, with depth of resonance in his deep pedal tones and firm command of coloraturas in the aria’s ornamental sections.
In similar fashion, Heimes—a frequent guest with NYS Baroque—satisfied the crowd with her sparkling coloraturas in the virtuosic embellishment sections of the solo madrigal for soprano and continuo, Voglio di vita uscir, attributed to Monteverdi. Heims delivered the two-part aria (accompanied here by continuo of harp, violone and harpsichord) with deep expression and anguish, and the handsome quality of her rich soprano cut straight to the soul.
Heims’s usual command of pitch eluded her at times during Monteverdi’s Più lieto il guardo, where she experienced trouble when reaching for the high notes in this Spanish-flavored aria—made all the more Spanish by the inclusion of the Baroque guitar, played ever so attractively by Deborah Fox—who also managed the theorbo (bass lute) parts during the concert.
The purely instrumental sections of Saturday’s program also shined. Giovanni Paulo Cima’s Sonata no. 2 for violin and continuo gave Andrijeski a chance to display her considerable talents, while Girolamo Frescobaldi’s Toccata no. 1, Book 2 gave harpsichordist Adam Pearl ample opportunity to dazzle the crowd in the rapid running passages that alternated with improvisatory rubato sections of this work. (It was nevertheless difficult to ignore that the harpsichord began to drift out of tune.)
Harpist Christa Patton gave the listeners a taste of the Baroque triple harp with her performance of Giovanni Leonardo Dell’Arpa’s Lucretia gentil, while Baroque cellist David Morris enlightened the crowd with an explanation of the lirone—a cello look-alike with nine to 16 strings (instead of the usual four) that was born in the Italian Counter-Reformation and died shortly thereafter. (Morris is one of a dozen or so musicians to own and play a replica of this rare instrument.)
It’s always a pleasure to have NYS Baroque come to Syracuse. The period-instrument ensemble brings music from the past to audiences who may not otherwise find exposure to early-music treasures such as the works on Friday’s program. What’s more, they do it right—with authentic performance practices that require both scholarship and mastery of a large assortment of unusual and challenging instruments.
These scholar-musicians are truly worthy of our attention.
What: NYS Baroque: Songs of Love and War
Where: First Unitarian Universalist Church, 109 Waring Rd., Syracuse
When: Friday, May 4, 2012 at 8 p.m.
Time: One hour, 55 minutes
Information: call (607) 533-4383
2012-2013 Season (Syracuse): La Vida Bona, 7:30 p.m. Sep. 14 (St. David’s Episcopal Church, Dewitt); Handel’s Apollo & Dafne, 7:30 p.m. Oct. 5; Fleurs de Lis, 7:30 p.m. Mar. 1
Ticket prices: $25 general; $20 seniors; $10 college; K-12 students free