Festival d’Aix-En-Provence 2021 Review: Combattimento, La Théorie du Cygne Noir
Silvia Costa’s Imaginative & Successful Presentation of 17th Century Baroque MastersBy Alan Neilson
(Photo: Monika Ritterhaus)
“Combattimento, La Théorie du Cygne Noir” is a staged work for eight singers, consisting of madrigals, arias, lamentations, and instrumental pieces from the baroque period taken from the years 1630 to 1650. Put together by musical director Sébastien Daucé and stage director Silvia Costa for the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, it includes works by Monteverdi, Cavalli, Messaino, Carissimi, Merula, Buonamente, and Rossi. It would be a mistake to presume, however, that the staging was no more than a superficial framework for the presentation of what was an interesting collection of known and little-known musical pieces.
Costa’s starting point was Monteverdi’s madrigal “Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda,” to which she added the other pieces, selected for their ability to advance the work’s foundational and structural themes. In doing this she was not attempting to knit together a linear narrative. Instead, she wished to encourage the audience to reflect on certain ideas, and interpret what they witness with reference to their own lives. Costa, talking in the program notes about her approach, states “I work to build a universe that proceeds by images and symbols which is not univocal, and must appeal to the personal experience of the viewer.” To this end, Costa introduced the idea of viewing *Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda” through the lens of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Black Swan theory.
A Black Swan Event: The Death of Clorinda
A black swan event is one that is totally unexpected, cannot be predicted, and the probability of it occurring at all is exceptionally low. The consequences, however, are potentially devastating. Such is their impact, people feel the need to rationalize them after they occur, seeing them as something that could have been predicted and therefore prevented. This can happen on an individual or a societal level, and forces the community as a whole to come together to understand how such a thing could have occurred.
Therefore, Tancredi’s killing of Clorinda, the woman he loved, and whom he believed to be a man owing to her disguise, can be seen as a Black Swan event, both in the life of Tancredi and for the community as a whole, who must lament her passing and rebuild their lives. Clorinda’s death has destroyed a possible future and in doing so opens up a dialogue for the exploration of different perspectives.
A Symbolic Presentation
Costa and Daucé’s decided to construct “Combattimento, La Théorie du Cygne Noir” in three distinct parts, each focusing on a particular aspect, with its own defining aesthetic, framed by Monteverdi’s madrigal “Hor che’l ciel e la terra,” with the first two verses forming the prologue and the last two verses forming the epilogue. Costa, herself, undertook the role of scenographer aided by costume designer Laura Dondoli and lighting designer Bernard Purkrabek.
Part One is a representation of Monteverdi’s “Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda,” presented by three singers playing the roles of Tancredi, Clorinda, and the Narrator. Visually, this was a spectacularly constructed scene in which Tancredi and Clorinda were dressed in futuristic medieval costumes, wielding brightly-lit laser swords. The background was for the most part black upon which were cast symbolic images that worked on various levels of consciousness. The movement was slow and stylized, often guided by the narrator.
Part Two was centered around the lamentations caused by Clorinda’s death and consisted of Cavalli’s aria “Alle ruine del mio regno” from “Il Didone,” as well as pieces by Carissimi, Massaino, and Merula. Each considers grief from a different perspective. Again the staging was excellent, with the use of symbols playing a pivotal role, although there were a couple of heavy-handed examples, such as a woman walking around with a baby’s coffin on her head.
Following grief, the community must move on, and Part Three focused on reconstruction. The community comes together and rebuilds. The singers, in modern dress, set about constructing a utopia, with its green environment, high rise cities, in which all is carefully attended to, until another Black Swan event, in the shape of a nuclear explosion, brings about a new catastrophe. The musical pieces included three contributions from Cavalli from his operas “Egisto” and “Gli amori di Apollo e Dafne,” two from Rossi, including an oratorio for five voices “La cecitá del misero mortale,” and one piece from Massaino.
The final two verses of Monteverdi’s madrigal “Hor Che’s ciel e la terra” for all eight singers brought the work to a conclusion. The text can be read as a reflection on the inevitability of Black Swan events, which will ensure that Man will never be able to build his Utopia. The final lines reading “I am born and die a thousand times a day, I am so far from salvation.”
A Well-Balanced, Strong Cast
The eight singing parts were distributed equally with four male voices, consisting of two tenors, a baritone and a bass, and four female voices, comprising two sopranos and two mezzo-sopranos. There were a number of pieces in which the voices came together in various combinations to produce a wonderful vocal polyphony, most notably in Rossi’s oratorio “La cecitá del misero mortale” in which the array of deep and colorful textures impressed. The gentle balance between the singers and the subtle detail with which they embellished the vocal lines was delightfully rendered.
The tenor Valerio Contaldo produced a strong, confident and professional performance in which his polished portrayal of the Narrator in “Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda” caught the attention. The voice was wonderfully expressive and malleable, in which his ornamentation of the vocal line was intelligently developed, and his ability to caress the words and imbue them with emotional depth was eloquently executed. Moreover, it is a very attractive voice, with a pleasing timbre that does not diminish under pressure.
Julie Roset was equally impressive. Her young, bright, fresh soprano with its exquisite purity really delighted. Her performance of Clorinda, and later in the role of a grieving mother, were both compellingly rendered. She displayed considerable vocal control and flexibility; ornamentations were beautifully crafted and her short trills were precise.
By far the most interesting voice was that of mezzo-soprano Lucile Richardot. Her voice possesses a very distinctive timbre, which in certain passages sounds quite extraordinary, and was particularly effective in evoking a sense of suffering and pain in her rendition of Cavalli’s lamentation “Alle ruine del mio regno.” It is also a very versatile, colorful, and engaging voice.
The baritone Etienne Bazola produced a refined, elegant performance, and was particularly effective in the role of Tancredi. He possesses a warm timbre with an inviting lower register, crafts neatly ornamented phrases, and sings with clarity.
Caroline Weynants possesses an attractive soprano with an appealing tone. Her performance of Merula’s spiritual canzonetta “Hor ch’e tempo di dormire” to a thin musical accompaniment was beautifully crafted and showed off her voice to fine effect.
Nicolas Brooymans has a fine, securely positioned bass, with a pleasing tonal consistency, from which he elicits an array of subtle colors. He is also an effective actor with a strong stage presence.
Tenor Antonin Rondepierre put in a solid performance, although solo opportunities were limited. His singing was secure and the voice displayed versatility.
The final singer, mezzo-soprano Blandine de Sansal was likewise given relatively few solo singing opportunities, but made the most of them, displaying a well-supported voice with a significant degree of expressivity.
The early music group Ensemble Correspondances under the guidance of Daucé was in fine form, producing a rhythmically vibrant and detailed performance that captured the emotional depth and sensitivity of the differing moods of the pieces. Daucé’s direction ensured that a tight connection existed between the orchestral ensemble and the singers.
“Combattimento, La Théorie du Cygne Noir” is an imaginative and well-constructed piece of theater, which brought together works from a group of early 17th century composers and molded them into a setting that connected with our present day approach to making sense of the world, in which we have given up in our belief in ever creating a utopia here on Earth: the Black Swan theory provides us with an understanding as to why it will always be an impossibility. It was also a provocative work which required the audience to make an effort in responding to Costa’s imagery and symbolic references. Passivity was not really an option and would have only left the audience feeling perplexed.
At the end of the performance, the audience reacted with warm, enthusiastic applause, which says everything.