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23 Aug 2009
The Full Monteverdi: A Film by John la Bouchardière
Although the cutesy title sounds like something conjured up by a community
college marketing intern working for a mid-sized city orchestra’s ticket
office—where every concert featuring Wagner and Brahms gets the sobriquet
“Teutonic Titans”—don’t be put off by the moniker. This film is a brilliant adaptation of Monteverdi’s Fourth Book of Madrigals that is totally faithful to the composer’s music.
The development of opera in Italy is largely unthinkable without the
madrigal. Although the madrigal was a highly sophisticated musico-poetic form
featuring advanced harmonies and subtle texts of great literary value, it was,
after all, a choral form meant for unstaged performance. Yet the dramatic power
of the madrigal was such that monody—an early form of recitative--would
eventually evolve from it. What director John la Bouchardière and the members
of I Fagiolini have done is to demonstrate in a staged version the dramatic and
rhetorical power of Monteverdi’s madrigals.
The Fourth Book of Madrigals for 6 voices (1603) is perhaps
Monteverdi’s most famous book of madrigals because they were used by the
composer to adumbrate the principles of the seconda prattica, that is,
madrigals in which the composition of the music followed the lead of the
rhetoric of the poetry. The Fourth Book is also notable for the high quality of
the texts, consisting of poems by Giovanni Guarini (Il pastor fido)
and Torquato Tasso among others. The 19 madrigals of the book share an
emotional intensity expressive of the ebb and flow of a profound love. What the
creators of this film have done is to pair each of the six singers with an
actor and then to stage the performance as though it were six couples who
coincidentally are having dinner at a contemporary restaurant. This allows each
of the singers to have a dramatic foil, a person who is the object of the
subjective text. This is a brilliant conceit and it works spectacularly well.
What is even more remarkable is that this movie is a studio filming of the work
that was originally performed live on stage. It is hard to imagine the
concentration involved in performing highly chromatic madrigals with the
performers not being in close proximity, and at time not even facing one
The film introduces a personalization of the intense emotional drama,
alternating its focus among the various couples and even allowing for visual
flashbacks as the music unfolds. Thus, we can be given the “back
story” visually (for example, a past argument) as the couple in question
grieves for a split up that is about to take place. Although they have no words
to say, the task for the six actors is especially daunting as they must express
the rhetorical and dramatic power of the madrigals utilizing only facial cues
and body gestures and avoiding the overly melodramatic style of silent film
Another aspect of this film that I found particularly satisfying is that a
number of the madrigals are performed attacca. The elision of the performances
of the madrigals heightens their poetic and dramatic unity, even when the texts
of the madrigals are by different authors.
Madrigals of this sort were considered to be musica reservata, that is,
music of extraordinary complexity and subtlety that was meant to be appreciated
primarily by a highly educated and relatively small elite. As such, seconda
prattica madrigals are often a tough go for the uninitiated and especially
so for the typical college music appreciation student. This film makes explicit
the drama that is inherent in the music and poetry and can, therefore, do a
great deal to promote appreciation of Monteverdi’s madrigals.
The members of I Fagiolini sing with tremendous expressivity, flawless
intonation, and amazing vocal technique. So convincing was their performance
that it was not difficult at all to suspend disbelief at watching 21st century
couples in a restaurant sing Italian madrigals while breaking up before the
first course. This is a highly recommended DVD that should prove attractive to
both opera lovers and early music devotees.
William E. Grim