Monteverdi Festival Cremona 2024 Review: Polittico Monteverdiano

Catalano & Greco Combine for a Convincing Staging of Monteverdi Madrigals

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: Paolo Cisi)

For what was the third presentation in a crowded evening of events, Cremona’s Monteverdi Festival scheduled a performance of a selection of the composer’s madrigals, culminating with “Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda.” It was, however, not presented as a concert but as a staged performance in the form of an opera, entitled “Polittico Monteverdiano,” put together by the musical director Antonio Greco and stage director Roberto Catalano.

There were six pieces in total taken from the composer’s sixth, seventh and eighth books of madrigals and one from his “Scherzi Musicale,” divided by three sinfonias from the now relatively unknown composer, Antonio Bertali. There was no added text, rather the drama was carried solely by the songs themselves, along with the visual dimension introduced through Catalano’s staging.

Catalano’s Demanding Staging

Catalano is an interesting and fascinating director, although not one universally loved; his productions are capable of generating as much ire as they do praise, and this was certainly the case here. Treating the audience as intelligent, thoughtfully engaged and open to new ideas and interpretations, he takes a highly intellectualized approach, and depending upon who one talks to, his productions can be viewed as either illuminating or depressingly alienating. It is something Catalano himself appears to be very aware of, as he often writes detailed program notes that provide the audience with a framework through which they can engage with his reading.

To anyone who wants theatre to be a passive activity, a simple entertainment, just another item of consumption which can be enjoyed without any effort on their part, then his stagings are likely to be opaque and frustrating affairs. However, for those who enjoy insightful, challenging or thought-provoking interpretations, then Catalano’s stagings are likely to be the perfect fit.

At the heart of the texts, Catalano identified the human need for physical, emotional and spiritual love, as well as the pain that love will inevitably bring, whether through its absence, its loss or not being requited. We are born into pain, and it is our destiny to suffer. Only by confronting our pain can we transcend it, and for this, we need to be prepared and educated.

During the opening Sinfonia, taken from the Seventh Book of Madrigals, a baby, still connected to its mother’s umbilical cord, emerges from a chamber at the back of the stage. In the final scene, the baby, now a woman, dies. Having fully experienced and learned of the love and pain, peace and war that life entails, she is now in a position to help others who are destined to enter this world and who will suffer the enjoyment and trials that define human existence.

It is her path through life that makes up the substance of the narrative. On entering the world, the baby is immediately confronted by the restrictions imposed by her own body and the pain this can bring. ‘Emotional instructors,’ possibly her parents, family and significant others, are on hand to prepare her for the realities of existence by making her confront and, thereby, learn how to coexist with her pain. They are also there to help her experience its joys so that she is able to submerge herself in the pleasures of life. It is a pathway that allows the individual to transcend the fickleness of our natures and engage with life in a positive manner.

The stage, designed by Catalano, was set up to look like an untidy stage in a theatre that has not been fully prepared for a performance. It was a dark space with plenty of chairs, lights, boxes and other equipment one would expect to find backstage. The costumes, designed by Haria Ariemme, did not represent any specific era or culture, although there was an eerie gothic quality about them. All were colored black, except for the woman, whose pathway was the focus of our attention, who was attired in a pinkish white dress.

Each madrigal was presented from Catalano’s overarching perspective, so that the emotional instructors used the text to instruct or engage physically with the woman as a means of helping her to confront her pain and embrace her pleasure. They were often emotionally cold. When she rebelled or stubbornly refused to comply, they remained calm, almost indifferent, and continued to insist. The woman used the madrigals to voice the pain caused by her inner conflict and to lament the love she cannot find or hold onto, as well as her desire for inner peace.

Overall, it was a strong reading, but one that probably would have been inaccessible without Catalano’s program notes.

Greco Oversees a Musical Performance Fit for a Festival Dedicated to Monteverdi

The musical side of the performance was under the guidance of Antonio Greco, who produced a delicate, detailed performance yet one with a vibrant sense of freedom. He ensured that the singers and individual instruments were given sufficient space to express themselves, but at the same time, they were never allowed to dominate; there was always a pleasing balance! The Orchestra Monteverdi Festival – Cremona Antiqua played with finesse and a great sense of style, capturing the madrigals’ rhythmic and textural beauties.

The singers were comprised of three sopranos, two tenors, a baritone and a bass. All sang well, but it was soprano Silvia Frigato, playing the main character of the woman, who took on the persona of Clorinda in the final piece, that stood out. Marrying the dramatic and lyrical demands of her role, she produced an emotionally powerful and layered performance, which she supported with her fine acting; it was very easy to identify with her frustrations and pain, especially when, as a child, she was being instructed on how to behave correctly. Her first contribution was the madrigal “Zefiro torna e di soave accenti” SV251 from “Scherzi musicale,” a duet that she sung with soprano Giorgia Sorichetti,in which showed off her sensitivity, tonal beauty and ability to embellish the vocal line, in which her well-placed trills were beautifully rendered. Equally impressive was her presentation in the madrigal “Lamenta della Ninfa,” SV163 from the composer’s eighth book of madrigals, in which she produced an expressively strong reading, but without excess, and captured her pain brilliantly. Her overall performance was a testament to her ability in interpreting the Monteverdi repertoire.

Sorichetti made a striking impression in her black dress with a large white hairdo, playing the role of a strict mother-type figure. She produced a solid performance in which her ability to ornament the vocal line caught the attention.

Baritone Albrich Ferran also produced an impressive performance, especially as the Narrator in “Il Combattimenti di Tancredi and Clorinda.” He possesses a resonant, clean-sounding voice with a pleasing timbre, which he used intelligently to craft delicately and sensitively embellished lines. He also displayed a strong stage presence.

Tenor Angelo Testori has a sweet-sounding voice, which he used effectively to characterize his role, most notably as Tancredi, which allowed him to display his agility and sensitivity in embellishing the vocal line.

Although given relatively few opportunities to display the full range of his abilities, bass Giacomo Pieracci produced a clearly defined and expressively convincing performance.

Soprano Cristina Greco and tenor Nicola Di Filippo both produced committed, pleasing performances in what were limited roles.

There was one other character on stage, played by Marco Caudera, who, although he did not sing, had a major role in how the drama unfolded; he was a flamboyantly dressed dancer who twisted, spiraled and turned, and whose presence was at the centre of everything that happened to the newly born human up until her death. Choreographing his own movement, Caudera added a different dynamic to the staging, which was both aesthetically satisfying and thought-provoking.

Overall, this was an excellent presentation; it turned a collection of Monteverdi’s madrigals, which would have undoubtedly made for an excellent concert, into a fascinating stage work that forged them into a coherent narrative that highlighted both their visual and musical dramatic qualities. It is very likely that some members of the audience left the theatre unconvinced by the staging, given the opaque nature of Catalano’s production, but those who were prepared to engage with his interpretation would probably have been very satisfied. Musically, however, there can have been few people who were left unimpressed by what they had heard.


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