Les Talens Lyriques’ interpretations of seven Monteverdi madrigals from Book VIII – compiled in the latter decades of Monteverdi’s life – on Thursday evening provided a model of how to wring out the nuances from these pieces that represent the full flowering of the composer’s genius. Added bonuses were a couple of medium-length works: the central Lamento d’Arianna fragment from the composer’s ‘lost’ second opera Arianna, and the dramatic genere rappresentivo piece Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda (one of two lengthier works from Book VIII contrasting love and war).
Word-painting is Monteverdi’s forte, and the ensemble delivered this in full measure. A generous assortment of continuo instruments (a violone, two cellos, chitarrone, guitar, harp, harpsichord and organ) assured constantly changing texture. In Ohimè ch’io cado, for example, the opening harpsichord-only stanza gave way to a more fractured, crystalline accompaniment from cello harp and guitar to point up the text’s references to the shattering of ‘adamantine defences’, and for the dark, low chords accompanying lonely grieving by a sea-shore in O sia tranquillo il mare, harpsichord, organ and chitarrone were deployed.
The director, Christophe Rousset, also ensured that dynamic and speed played their parts: the sudden pianissimi and halting in tempo for the sighing passages in O sia tranquillo; the brief agitato to depict taking courage in Ardo e scoprir, ahi lasso, io non ardisco; or the deliciously quiet marcato ‘tiptoes’ in the same madrigal, for the final passage (‘the words are cut short on my lips’). The drama of Combattimento … allowed the ensemble and singers full rein with these dramatic effects, from a rhythmic march for Tancredi’s initial approach, a sudden staccato for the initial blows of the fight, to interrupted and decaying phrases to describe the combatants’ weariness.
For the larger items, the ensemble was joined by a pair of violins and a viola, increasing not only the volume, but the capacity for variation in timbre. The instrumental Sinfonia prima à 4 con due bassi by Giovanni Kapsberger comprised a pleasantly mathematical set of variations (each one pairing simple and compound-time sections) for the string instruments either solo or in pairs and was given a meticulously shaded performance.
The all-essential singers were generally well-chosen. The tenor Magnus Staveland gave a tour-de-force of a performance, especially in the lengthy Combattimento… where, as narrator, he has the lion’s share of text, to which he applied a wide range of dramatic singing techniques; his rapid babbling of words to describe Tancredi’s impetuousness was impressive indeed. The haute-contre Anders J Dahlin was also on top form, not only as Tancredi, but as the upper tenor in the three two-tenor madrigals (Chiome d’oro, O sia tranquillo… and Ardo e scoprir…), his voice perfectly matched with Staveland’s to provide Monteverdi’s trademark twisting of suspensions. The soprano Eugénie Warnier gave us performances full of drama (particularly for Lamento d’Arianna), and while her voice has an edge when it is singing high and loud (for example, in the more sarcastic passages in Ohimè ch’io cado), it wasn’t, at times, large enough to be heard across the ensemble (positioning the singers behind the instruments perhaps contributed to this). While full of creamy character, her voice lacks the solid bell-like clarity that suits Monteverdi’s music, and its somewhat breathy quality made for a lack of attack on a few phrases.