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Reviews

12 Jan 2019

Venus Unwrapped launches at Kings Place, with ‘Barbara Strozzi: Star of Venice’

‘Playing music is for a woman a vain and frivolous thing. And I would wish you to be the most serious and chaste woman alive. Beyond this, if you do not play well your playing will give you little pleasure and not a little embarrassment. … Therefore, set aside thoughts of this frivolity and work to be humble and good and wise and obedient. Don’t let yourself be carried away by these desires, indeed resist them with a strong will.’

Venus Unwrapped: Barbara Strozzi: Star of Venice

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: members of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, directed by Christian Curnyn

Photo credit: Viktor Erik Emanuel

 

Scholar, poet and cardinal Pietro Bembo (1470-1547) may have been a promoter of humanism - and thus a seminal influence in the development of the Italian madrigal in the early sixteenth century - but his words to his daughter reflect the inverse relationship between music-making and female chastity held in his day.

Kings Place’s 2019 festival, Venus Unwrapped , seeks to give those women who have been silenced their musical voice: over the next twelve months, Venus Unwrapped will offer more than sixty opportunities to enjoy diverse music by more than one hundred female composers from the Middle Ages to the modern day - music ‘from Anna Meredith to Florence Price, Rafaella Alleotti to Rebecca Clarke, Barbara Strozzi to Sona Jobarteh, Fanny Mendelssohn to Pan Daijing, Kaija Saariaho to Nikki Yeoh, Cara Dillon to Cate Le Bon’.

The festival launched with a highly expressive performance by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, directed by Christian Curnyn, of music by a ‘star of Venice’, Barbara Strozzi (1619-77) - described by her father, Giulio, as a virtuossisima cantatrice. Strozzi was undoubtedly not the only woman participating in music-making and producing her own compositions during the seventeenth century. Travellers to Italy frequently reported their admiration for the musical accomplishments of the women they met, but there are certainly more references to women such as the daughter of Paduan Domenico Bassano who, so the English traveller John Evelyn wrote in 1649, sang and played nine instruments ‘with that skill and addresse that few master in Italy exceeded her’, and ‘likewise compos’d divers excellent pieces’, than there are extant manuscripts of such ‘excellent pieces’. Excepting the slightly older Francesca Caccini (1589-c1640), Strozzi seems to have been one of very few women of the period who pursued a professional career as a composer.

Conducting some preparatory research before this performance, I was wryly amused to come upon an article by scholar Judith Tick written in 2012, in which she reflected on the publication twenty-five years earlier of Women Making Music: The Western Art Tradition, 1150-1950, which she edited with Jane Bowers. Tick recalls handing the manuscript to the academic board of the University of California, prompting a tart response from a ‘cranky composer’: “‘The Voice of Barbara Strozzi?’” he scoffed. “Why not ‘The Voice of Barbra Streisand’?”, in reference to a now esteemed article by Ellen Rosand. Tick goes on to relate, ‘I was in France in the summer of 1985 when I saw the cover of the book for the first time. There was bosomy Barbara Strozzi, front and center.’ [1]

So, who was Barbara Strozzi? Born in 1619, in Venice, to poet and opera librettist Giulio Strozzi and his housekeeper, Isabella Garzoni, Strozzi was formally adopted by Giulio in 1628. Her father was one of the most influential Venetian literati of the first half of the seventeenth century. A member of the Accademia degli Incogniti (Academy of the Hidden Ones), he was at the cutting edge of the radical development of new styles and forms of musico-dramatic expression, and worked with many composers, including Monteverdi. Barbara, by the age of sixteen, had attained a reputation as a virtuoso singer: in 1635 and 1636, Nicolo Fontei dedicated two sets of songs to Strozzi whom he said ‘possessed a voice like Orfeo … and a bold and graceful manner of singing’. In 1637, Giulio founded the Accademia degli Unisoni, presumably in order to showcase his daughter’s talents, and thus Barbara became acquainted with the theoretical and intellectual debates of the cultural elite of Venice. In 1638, the same year that Monteverdi published his eight book of madrigals,Madrigali Guerrieri e Amorosi, Giulio Strozzi publishedVeglie de Signori Unisoni - essays which document the Unisoni’s discussions and provide evidence that Barbara, who studied with Cavalli, had composed and performed her own songs by the time she was nineteen.

On October 12, 1644 Barbara published Il Primo de Madrigali a due, tre, quattro e cinque voci, setting texts by her father. This was the first of eight volumes of vocal works - chiefly secular madrigals, arias and cantatas - which she would publish over the next twenty years, and it was largely from this first volume that the OAE drew the items which comprised the first half of their programme.

What struck me most was the variety and adventurousness of the madrigals presented. Strozzi’s appreciation of the power of musical rhetoric, and her melodic invention, were plainly evident, but more than this it was the diversity of texture and style, and the radical disruptiveness of both her text-settings, which often seemed to pull against the natural rhythm of the poetry, and her exploitation of dissonance. In the dedicatory note to her Op.1, Strozzi commented, ‘I must reverently consecrate this first work, which as a woman, I publish all too anxiously, to the Most August Name of Your Highness, so that under an oak of gold it may rest secure against the lightning bolts of slander prepared for it’. If she did not have much optimism about the likely reception of her work in 1644, by 1656 she had achieved renown and acceptance - works by her appear in collection alongside Francesco Cavalli, Horatio Tarditi, Maurizio Cazatti and others - and these madrigals showed why. They were performed with vivid expressiveness by the singers and instrumentalists of the OAE, too; a handsome ensemble sound was formed from strongly characterised individual voices and the carefully observed nuances of instrumental composition and texture made for considerable refinement.

‘L’amante modesto’ (The modest lover) (à 5) made for a vibrant opening, the strongly defined vocal lines bristling with the drama and intensity of the poetic argument, supported by varied instrumental groupings with Elizabeth Kenny’s theorbo elaborations at their heart. Kenny switched to chitarrone for ‘Pace arrabbiata’ (Peace in anger), which danced with vigour as the indignation of the three male singers at the haughty aloofness of a ‘cruel’ woman was captured by the wide expanse between the high tenor line and bass, Nicholas Mulroy agilely and strongly ascending to the peaks of the former.

The ladies had their own trio, ‘Le Tre Gratie a Venere’ (The Three Graces to Venus), in which Miriam Allen, Zoe Brookshaw and Helen Charlston blended with sweetness and sensuousness, supported by rich harmonies, with Joy Smith’s harp to the fore. The flexibility and the fluency of the vocal lines was admirable here and in ‘Canto di bella bocca’ (Song from a beautiful mouth) in which the voices of Allen and Mulroy swayed towards and then pulled against each other in exquisite rhetorical design, enhanced by Kenny’s musicianship and Strozzi’s heart-twisting suspensions. The dissonance of the final line embodied the pleasure-pain paradoxes of the text, only partially eased by Kenny’s gentle closing tierce de Picardie.

Venus Unwrapped 1.jpgMary Bevan and members of the OAE. Photo credit: Viktor Erik Emanuel.

Mary Bevan’s two solo items represented the apex of Strozzi’s musico-rhetorical majesty. In ‘Lagrime mie’ (My tears) from Diporte di Euterpe the harmonic piquancy and rapidly changing timbral contrasts of the accompanying ensemble (theorbo, lirone (Emilia Benjamin) and two violins (Rodolfo Richter and Jane Gordon) complemented the declamatory distress of the vocal line, the angularity and expressive fioritura of which Bevan imbued with dramatic colour, though the soprano’s diction wanted for clarity - which was a pity because the way in which Strozzi fractures the text in order to emphasise Lidia’s pain at her father’s cruelty is a powerful element of the rhetorical impact. In ‘È pazzo il mio core’ (My heart is crazy), Bevan flew lightly through the melismatic excursions and injected real anger into her tone at the close, anguishing at the foolishness of a heart that ‘torments itself in a cruel flame’ (E come tal si cruccia in fiero ardore).

The closing item of the first half, Silentio novice (Noisome silence) brought together Zoe Brookshaw, Martha McLorinan, John Bowen and Jonathan Brown and gently lulled us with its ‘songs of our loving hearts’ (le parole affettuose e I canti).

Monteverdi’s eighth book of madrigals, published during his Venetian years when the composer was seventy-one years of age, drew on two decades of composition and is essentially a summary of the development of the madrigal. Each of the Book’s two halves, Canti guerrieri (Songs of War) and Canti amorosi (Songs of Love), ends with a ballo , composed for a specific occasion: ‘Volgendo il ciel’ was written in 1637 in honour of the Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand III of Hapsburg, and Il ballo delle ingrate, first heard in 1608 at the wedding festivities of Francesco Gonzago, was rewritten for Vienna in 1628 and finally published in 1638.

In ‘Volgendo il ciel’ Nicholas Mulroy was a compelling and commanding ‘Poet’, complemented by a voluminous choral ensemble and instrumentalists whom the Poet addressed directly on occasion. The full ensemble, including two violas (Jan Schlapp and Annette Isserlis), cello (Andrew Skidmore) and violone (Cecelia Bruggemeyer) gathered for Il ballo delle ingrate, which upholds a long-lived tradition of exemplifying what will happen to women who don’t behave as they should. Venus, troubled because Cupid is failing to hit the target, travels to the Underworld to urge Pluto to make an example of those ungrateful women who reject male desire, and so the latter are led through a flaming bocca d’inferno in order that the female members of Monteverdi’s contemporary audience might gain of the glimpse of the punishment that will await them should they deny their men-folk their due satisfaction. Federico Follino, a court chronicler in Mantua in 1608, wrote that the singer performing the role of Pluto moved ‘with great gravity towards the princesses who were in view facing the stage; once he had approached them, full of horrid majesty, he began to sing’. Clearly, he wanted to make sure they’d got the message! However, one ingrate, defying Pluto’s order compelling passive silence and submission, sings a lament which inspires her fellow ‘cruel Beauties’ to plead for pity.

Follino’s account of the Mantuan performance attests to its vivid theatricality: ‘In the middle of the stage one saw the large mouth of a wide and deep cavern … surrounded within and around by burning fire and in its darkest depths, in a part very deep and distant from its mouth, one saw a great abyss behind which there rotated balls of flames burning most brightly and within which there were countless monsters of the inferno so horrible and frightening that many did not have the courage to look upon it.’

There were no flames or monsters at Kings Place but there was drama aplenty. The contrast between brightness of Zoe Brookshaw’s Cupid and the darker hues of Helen Charlston’s Venus, supported by the grainy warmth of the instrumental ensemble made for an engaging opening duet, and Venus’s anger at feminine betrayal - the women have scorned Cupid’s arrows and their own men’s heroism and honour - was strongly and richly delivered: ‘Udite, donne, udite i saggi detti di celeste parlar nel cor serbate’ (Listen, ladies, listen, keep the wise sayings of heavenly speech in your heart). David Shipley was a grave Pluto, supported by Curnyn’s sensitive organ accompaniment, sustaining the god’s dignity and lyricism throughout his long arioso moralising.

Mary Bevan’s delivery of the final lament recalled the dissonant intensity of Arianne’s threnody and there was stirring defiance as this solo ingrate interrupted the silent progress of the suffering women, rejecting Pluto’s order to return to hell and weep.

‘Loquacity cannot be sufficiently reproached in women, as many very learned and wise men have stated, nor can silence be sufficiently applauded.’ So wrote Francesco Barbaro, in his 1555 treatise on wifely decorum and duty, which was composed for the wedding of Lorenzo de Medici. But, at Kings Place, a side door opened, and four off-stage ingrates echoed Bevan’s lament in gratingly dissonant fashion: ‘Apprendate pietà, donne e donzelle’ (Learn pity, ladies and girls).

So, Monteverdi gave the women the last word.

Claire Seymour

Barbara Strozzi: Star of Venus
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Christian Curnyn (director/harpsichord/organ), Mary Bevan (soprano)

Strozzi - ‘L’Amante modesto’, ‘Pace arrabbiata’, ‘Lagrime mei’, ‘Canto di belle bocca’, ‘È pazzo il mio core’, ‘Le tre Grazie à Venere’, ‘Silentio nocivo’; Monteverdi - Ballo: ‘Volgendo il ciel’, Il ballo delle Ingrate

Kings Place, London; Thursday 10th January 2019.



[1] In Women and Music: A Journal of Gender and Culture, Volume 16, 2012.

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