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The Full Monteverdi: A Film by John la Bouchardière
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 Full Monteverdi: A Film by John la Bouchardière
A Music-Drama based on Claudio Monteverdi’s Fourth Book of Madrigals.

Featuring I Fagiolini: Anna Crookes, Carys Lane, sopranos; Clare Wilkinson, mezzo-soprano; Nicholas Mulroy, tenor; Matthew Brook, baritone; Giles Underwood, bass; and Robert Hollingworth, director. Actors: Pano Masti, Alan Mooney, Mark Denham, Katherine Peachey, Anna Skye, and Gina Peach. Written and Directed by John la Bouchardière.

Naxos 2.110224 [DVD]

$19.98  Click to buy

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 other.

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 acting.

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

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