Songs of the Celestial Sirens, Toronto Consort, May 7, 2011
In the all-female cloisters of Northern Italian states in the 17th century, music was composed in-house, by the women for the women. The outside audience could only listen to the chants from the courtyard, on the other side of the monastery walls. Toronto Consort presented last night a selection of works by the nun-composers Chiara Margarita Cozzolani (1602-c.1677), Isabella Leonarda (1620-1704), Caterina Assandra (c.1592-1620) and one guy, Orazio Tarditi (1602-1677). The texts the women used are some of the most often heard Psalms like Dixit Dominus and Nisi Dominus as well as the Magnificat, but also some less frequently heard and very Marian Antiphons, Motets and Concertos. There were also lyrics of the more ecstatic, St-Teresa kind, like “O dulcis amor Jesu”:
Oh Jesus, sweet love
sweet goodness, my beloved,
pierce me with your arrows.
May I die for you.
Oh, my Jesus.
Pull me, I beg you, after you.
Place me amongst flowers.
You are the sun, you are the hope, you are life.
You are infinite goodness.
Italian Baroque always found ways to be naughty, whether you were enclosed in the Milanese Santa Radagonda, or hanging with Gli Ignoti inVenice. The music of these chants for eight female voices is so exquisite, it could easily pass for Monteverdi. But that would be to simplify: the all-women, estrogen-on-acid freedom and constraints of these works produce their own unique musical magic.
Last night was one veritable alto fest. Yes, there were four sopranos and four altos, but the altos had such prominent solos and each of the altos its own well-developed personality that they this time sopranos took the role of the supporting voices. I won’t say anything new when I iterate that Laura Pudwell’s alto is out of this world. The colour, the strength, the resonance, the style, the twinkle in the eye… Words run out. During one of her solos “Care plage” (“Dear wounds, dear flames, how pleasant you are to me…”) the audience at Trinity-St. Paul suspended breathing. Kate Helsen and Josée Lalonde also had their own distinct timbres and styles. And what to say about Vicki St Pierre? She was lovely in every way a singer can be. Her bio says she recently sung L’Incoronazione inVancouver: if we’re talking Nerone, the nation is eagerly awaiting the photos.
In truth, all voices had great opportunities to show off, through solos, solo phrases, pairings and trios. The sopranos did not disappoint either. TC regulars Katherine Hill and Michele DeBoer were joined by Meghan Roberts and Dawn Bailey, again all singers with distinct individualities. The conductor David Fallis continuously changed the positions of the singers and their pairings, which made the tapestry and the colours of singing so much richer.
The Continuo were: Lucas Harris (theorbo), Paul Jenkins (organ), Annalisa Pappano (bass gamba and lirone) and Julia Seager-Scott (baroque harp).
Here’s one take on Cozzolani’s “O dulcis amor Jesu”: