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Recordings

Claudio Monteverdi: Combattimento
06 Oct 2008

MONTEVERDI: Combattimento

In recent years, Emmanuelle Haïm has achieved prominence at the helm of several baroque operas, including Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo and Handel’s Rodelinda and Giulio Cesare.

Claudio Monteverdi: Combattimento

Le Concert d’Astrée; Emmanuelle Haïm, Director. Rolando Villazón and Topi Lehtipuu, tenors; Patrizia Ciofi, soprano.

Virgin Classics 0946 3 63350 [CD]

$15.99  Click to buy

Her dramatic bent is well in tow in this anthology of vocal chamber music from Monteverdi’s seventh and eighth book of madrigals, the Scherzi Musicali and assorted anthologies from the 1620’s and 1630’s. The eponymous work on the recording, the “Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda” is imposing in its length and operatic theatricality and the most impressive performance on the recording. A treatment of a scene from Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata in which Christian hero (Tancredi) fights and slays his Saracen beloved (Clorinda), who is traveling incognita in the armor of a male warrior, the work gives ample room for Monteverdi to display both his innovative stile concitato (agitated style), bringing the sounds of battle to life through rapidly articulated tremolos, and his sensitive touch in the dying words of Clorinda. The narrator, Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón, is stunningly dramatic with an Orfeo-like expressive range and responsiveness that both touches and invigorates. And Patrizia Ciofi’s rendition of Clorinda’s last words are movingly poignant and sublime.

In some pieces, however, the intense dramatic singing characteristic of the
Combattimento serves less well. The airs “Si dolce è ‘l tormento,” “Perchè se m’odiavi,” and “Maledetto sia l’aspetto” seem overwhelmed by singing that is too vibrant, too inflected, and too intense, where a simpler naturalness might have served the melodic airiness better. Admittedly, the texts are poems of cruel love, and there is much that might invite the dramatic touch, but at the same time, too much drama can rob a beautiful melody of its tuneful grace. This seems to be the case here. And the tenor duet, “Tornate, o cari baci,” has a vibrancy that rather hints of nineteenth-century sound ideals, an echo perhaps of Villazón’s mainstream opera career. Where high drama and intensity of expression are wanted, the two tenors have a great deal to offer. However, with simpler, more tuneful pieces, a less vocally and dramatically encumbered approach would be more compelling.

The instrumental playing is superb. The concitato passage work is thrillingly energized, while elsewhere the characteristicly wafting lilt of sculpted phrases invites one into a richness of sound that is unflaggingly captivating (as in the opening sinfonia of “Tempro la cetra.” Additionally, the opening sinfonia to “Si dolce è ‘l tormento” is a wonderful display of plucked string sound that, too, has unyielding allure. Haïm deploys her diverse forces schematically in a way that well serves the unfolding of the text, an operatic instinct perhaps, and one that is a particularly rich aspect of the recording.

Steven Plank

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