The enthusiastic standing ovation that greeted both performances of Vespro della Beata Vergine (1610) acknowledged both the enduring power of Monteverdi’s masterpiece and the expertise of Concerto Italiano. Under the expert guidance of Rinaldo Alessandrini, whose clear gestures shaped the musical impulse and emotional trajectory of a work with as much theatricality as an opera, the ten singers and thirteen musicians provided an exhilarating display of technical and musical virtuosity.
The burnished tones of the introductory Versicle heralded a style in which all singers would project as soloists as well as members of a finely tuned ensemble. The following toccata with its explosion of instrumental fanfare, dominated by the three cornettos, added to the adrenalin rush. This Response was one of the few times that all ten voices were heard together.
It was not only the more full-throated vocal approach of the men that seemed to signal their Italian origins; there was also an uncommon degree of small hand movement by most of the singers. Not distracting in the least, it appeared to be more a mark of their physical involvement and commitment to the music. And involvement was exactly what members of the audience felt. As one singer remarked (and there were many in the audience), sometimes one had to battle against a kind of “musical incontinence” as the urge to join in became pressing.
Of the many configurations of singers and instrumentalists in this colourful work, some of the most arresting moments came in the more pared back arrangements. With the cornettos and three Baroque trombones in full flight, the two violins and theorbos blended into the overall texture of the sound. Various ritornelli provided an opportunity to hear some shining, deft work from the violins and the theorbos came into their own as the sole accompaniment to tenor Raffaele Giordani in an exquisite Nigra sum. Ardent and beautifully phrased, it was a joy as pliable, drawn out phrases hung between more urgent ones. From the vantage point of a seat more towards the back of the hall for the second performance, it seemed that the singers exploited the acoustics of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall even more successfully.
The two sopranos, Anna Simboli and Monica Piccinini, wove a gossamer light fabric in their Pulchra es duet with the two theorbos. As the only two singers common to both the recordings being sold in the foyer and these performances, their congruence of tone and musical intention obviously sprang from extensive experience together and with Alessandrini. Pure, warm and flowing, their voices were a gorgeous, perfumed sigh. Their extended repetitions of “Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis” and floating phrases in the Et Misericordia of a riveting Magnificat (also notable for some fine alto work) were admirable.
Despite the virtues of the MRC acoustic, a church does have certain advantages in a performance of this work. In 2014, Melbourne audiences were able to hear Gloriana Chamber Choir use the organ loft of Sacred Heart, Carlton, to striking effect for Duo Seraphim and the echoes of Audi coelum. For the latter, the answering echoes came from the back of the stalls of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall. Echoing phrases from the Magnificat were achieved by the second baritone turning his back to the audience and a cornetto playing from the back corner of the stage.
Given the quality of the performances, these were comparatively minor issues. By the end of the concert, even those less familiar with this iconic work had been bowled over by what they had just experienced – and the 1610 Vespers in the flesh is a significant experience – grateful to those who made it possible to hear such an extraordinary performance. Many had also been awakened to the wonders of fine theorbo playing and motivated to remember the existence of such an excellent instrument despite its handicap of tricky pronunciation.
Of the numerous marvels of this performance it was the intricate beauty of Claudio Monteverdi’s creation itself, so lovingly and expertly realised by Concerto Italiano, that inspired and delighted listeners.
Heather Leviston reviewed Concerto Italiano & Rinaldo Alessandrini at the Melbourne Recital Centre, February 23 & 24