Chatham Baroque succeeds with Monteverdi program

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
May 2, 2015
Robert Croan

"Chatham Baroque’s rendition is an unusual and engaging theatrical experience, in large part due to the expressive, highly inflected singing of guest tenor Aaron Sheehan as Testo;... and colorful, precise playing by Chatham Baroque’s expert instrumentalists."

“The Battle of Tancredi and Clorinda,” the central work on Chatham Baroque’s all-Monteverdi concert in the Elsie Hillman Auditorium at the Hill House’s Kaufmann Center in the Hill District this weekend, is a landmark in music history.

The textbooks will tell you that it was the first work to use modern string techniques such as pizzicato, plucking the strings with the fingers on a normally bowed instrument; and that the composer invented stile concitato, literally “agitated style” — rapidly repeated notes and tremolo, used to represent the sounds of battle or other manifestations of anger. The work also used modern style recitatives, in which a sparsely accompanied solo voice singing gives clarity to the words, as opposed to Renaissance antique style, where four- or five-voiced polyphonic madrigals cover the poetry in favor of the music.

“Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda” (the work’s original Italian title), is far more than a historical document, however. It’s a minuscule masterpiece of musical theater. Composed in 1624 and published 14 years later as part of Monteverdi’s “Warlike and Amorous Madrigals,” the story unfolds in the words of a narrator, with brief snippets of dialogue assigned to the title characters. The composer intended it to be staged in a rather specific format, and in this production, members of Attack Theatre, choreographed by Peter Kope and Michele de la Reza, articulate the feats of the vocal protagonists (placed on the sidelines) in primitive dance movements.

The combat, set during the First Crusade, depicts the Christian Tancredi fighting and ultimately killing an unknown Muslim enemy, who turns out to be his lover, the warrior woman Clorinda dressed as a man. Chatham Baroque’s rendition is an unusual and engaging theatrical experience, in large part due to the expressive, highly inflected singing of guest tenor Aaron Sheehan as Testo (not the name of a character, but the Italian word for text, meaning here, a narrator); and colorful, precise playing by Chatham Baroque’s expert instrumentalists.

The battling lovers are adequately vocalized by bass Sean Salamon and soprano Chloe Holgate, members of Ping, a five-member early music vocal ensemble of Carnegie Mellon University. The composer directed that this drama should be preceded by other madrigals, unstaged to heighten the contrast. In the present production, Ping opens the evening — accompanied by Chatham Baroque — with four Monteverdi madrigals and a duet from his opera, “The Coronation of Poppea.” The singing Thursday was earnest and enthusiastic, and the men — tenor Garret Eucker and Mr. Salamon — showed promising vocal skills. The women, however — soprano Adreiie Lotto and alto Mariko Reid, along with Ms. Holgate — were often badly out of tune, a glaring deficiency in the elaborate (and ravishingly beautiful) chamber duet, “Zefiro torna,” which opened the show with Ms. Holgate and Ms. Lotto, and failed to make its potential effect. Similarly, the “Poppea” excerpt — one of the most erotic pieces in all music — came across lackluster and bland as it was out of context and unexplained as a love scene between Nero and his new queen.

“The Nymph’s Lament,” with Ms. Lotto making her complaint and the men commenting on her words, was quite charming. So were the dance songs, enhanced by the delightful rhythmic strumming of guitarists Scott Pauley and Simon Martyn-Ellis. But overall, Ping’s rough-hewn contribution lacked the polish of the event’s other musical participants.

On its own, “Combattimento” lasts a mere 22 minutes. Here it has been extended to include a trilogy of earlier Monteverdi madrigals — “I will live through my torments” — again staged with the Attack Theatre dancers, as a poignant and compelling epilogue.

Robert Croan is a Post-Gazette senior editor.