Thursday, June 18, 2015

Boston Early Music Festival: Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610

Claudio Monteverdi

The Boston Early Music Festival (BEMF) this year focussed on Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643). Monteverdi is a key figure in the history of music; his work spans the stylistic transition from the Renaissance to the Baroque, from madrigals to the then-new forms of accompanied singing and opera. The BEMF's astonishingly ambitious programming included, on successive days, performances of Monteverdi's Vespro della beata Vergine (Vespers of the Blessed Virgin, 1610) and his three surviving operas: Il ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria (The return of Ulysses, 1640), L'Orfeo (Orpheus, 1607), and L'incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea, 1642).

The three operas were fully staged and, amazingly, all featured many of the same vocalists and instrumentalists, and the same musical and stage directors and designers—a feat that, as far as I'm aware, is unprecedented. (The Brooklyn Academy of Music's Monteverdi Trilogy in 2002 included productions from three different companies.) It was a magnificent accomplishment by the BEMF's superb (and apparently indefatigable) artists. Seeing these masterworks over four days was an unforgettable experience.

Stephen Stubbs, from

Vespers of 1610
Thursday, June 11, Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory of Music. BEMF Vocal & Chamber Ensembles with the Dark Horse Consort; Stephen Stubbs, conductor.

In his booklet essay about the Vespers, conductor Stephen Stubbs writes that performing Baroque choral music with one voice per part has become the "norm." Following this logic, Stubbs presented the Vespers without a separate choir; the 10 vocal soloists also served as the chorus.

Surely Stubb's assertion is overstating the case (already overstated, in my view) that Joshua Rifkin famously made in his research on J. S. Bach's chorus. Although the Vespers were composed while Monteverdi was serving as the maestro della musica at the court of Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga in Mantua, they were evidently printed as a sort of audition piece for positions elsewhere—including Rome and Venice—where large-scale musical forces were available. And, indeed, when Monteverdi applied for the position of maestro di capella at the Basilica di San Marco in Venice in 1613, he led a performance of what was probably the Vespers. It should be no surprise to anyone who has ever heard the Vespers that he got hired on the spot.

We know that at San Marco, Monteverdi regularly supervised about 40 singers and 12 instrumentalists, with additional vocal and instrumental forces added for feast days and celebrations. [1] Since Monteverdi himself may have led performances of the Vespers involving a sizeable choir, the idea that this music should only be performed with one voice per part seems to be more of an aesthetic choice than an evidence-driven one. Which is fine by me; however, all such choices involve tradeoffs.

One voice per part highlighted the madrigal-like qualities of much of the music of the Vespers, as in "Pulcra es, amica mea" (Thou art beautiful, my love); here it is performed by sopranos Jolle Greenleaf and Molly Quinn of New York City's Green Mountain Project:

In Boston "Pulcra es" was beautifully sung by Shannon Mercer (later Silvia in L'Orfeo and Ottavia in Poppea) and Teresa Wakim (later Proserpina in L'Orfeo and Drusilla in Poppea).

A one-voice-per-part approach meant that the textures and harmonies were very clearly apparent throughout. It also meant that both vocal and instrumental performers were extraordinarily exposed, and the BEMF's virtuosic ensembles excitingly rose to the occasion. Other vocal standouts included tenors Zachary Wilder (later Telemaco in Ulisse and Lucano in Poppea) and Colin Balzer (later L'Humana Fragilità and Ulisse in Ulisse). Special mention should also be made of the excellent playing of concertmaster Robert Mealy and Julie Andrijeski (violins), Phoebe Carrai (violoncello), Erin Headley (viola da gamba), and the Dark Horse Consort's Kiri Tollaksen and Alexandra Opsahl (cornetti).

The main drawback of using one voice per part, however, was that the tutti sections lacked the kind of thrilling sonic impact that larger forces can provide. In particular, the moment at the beginning of the piece when all of the singers and instrumentalists come in together on the phrase "Domine, ad adiuvandum me festina" (Lord, make haste to help me)—a moment that can be electrifying—was underwhelming. Here is an example of the grandeur that larger choir can bring to this music; Jordi Savall conducts vocal soloists, the Padua Centre for Ancient Music Chorus and La Capella Reial de Catalunya:

But if the BEMF performance of the Vespers never quite made the hair on the back of my neck stand up, it still offered many exquisite moments, and was a wonderful introduction to Monteverdi's sound-world—a world that would be further explored in the days to come in the performances of his three surviving operas.

Next time: L'Orfeo


1. Paolo Fabbri, Monteverdi. Cambridge University Press, 1994, p. 137.

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