I have seen the future of the baroque concert, and it is programmed by Alison Mackay.

Safe Haven / Tafelmusik. Photo by Jeff Higgins

I’ve read good things about Tafelmusik’s multi-media, through-themed concerts, but did not know how special they are until I finally went to one this Friday. Safe Haven, programmed again by Tafelmusik’s double-bassist Alison Mackay, takes on  the theme of refugees and immigration this time. Pitfalls are many around the topic – sentimentality, didacticism, forced parallels, the idea that it’s incumbent upon art to fix historical injustices – but they were masterfully avoided. The multi- in its multi-media nature came from the video and lights (Raha Javanfar, projections & Glenn Davidson, lighting) and spoken text (researched and written by Mackay), with musical pieces tailored in.

Mackay spins the main thematic thread across the countries and continents while also remaining faithful to the orchestra’s preferred musical era, roughly the baroque style era between Lully on the one end (d. 1687) and Vivaldi (d. 1741) on the other. An extraordinary number of composers are on the program, many more than can be heard during regular Tafelmusik concerts because in most cases, single movements are played rather than the pieces in entirety. (And why not; didn’t, as Lydia Goehr argues, the ‘musical work’ as we understand it today emerge at around 1800 with Beethoven?) There are a few forays into our own time and among our contemporaries. A photo or two early on (the US-Canadian border crossing under snow, say), a recurring quote (“no one puts their children in a boat / unless the water is safer than the land”, the verse by Warsan Shire, young Somali-British poet), and at the very end the true story of a Newfoundlander who rescued a boat full of Tamil refugees thirty years ago.

The program itself is knitted into an almost narrative, pieces of music woven into the historical episodes described, often directly tied to the specific people named. The Huguenots had to leave France for England for reasons of religious persecution, the Jews had to leave Spain for The Netherlands, Catholics had to leave England and Scotland for Poland, the Roma had to keep moving through Europe even then, and all the while the slave trade is happening across the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Africa is here important part of the narrative and is given voice in the musical program, with Diely Mori Tounkara’s solos on the multi-string plucked instrument from Mali called kora, which sounds a bit like a love child between cello and harp. Plus, the knockout lady percussionist Naghmeh Farahmand added beat to some of the western pieces, and absolutely blew the roof off with her solo on the Iranian daf.

Reading the script was the singer Maryem Tollar. She also sang the two vocal pieces on the program, “Or sus, serviteurs du seigneurs” by Goudimel and Bourgeois in old French and “A la salida de Lisboa” in Portuguese. The voice is non-operatic, which is exactly what was needed in the context – she naturally switched from the speaking mode to singing as a cabaret mezzo. It was simple, and intimate, and right. The only thing that perhaps wasn’t ideal is that during the reading segments she would overemphasize most of the adjectives and add dramatic enunciation to her words where this wasn’t called for. But not too big a deal, ultimately — and not everybody is a trained actor, c’est pas grave. She aptly navigated the microphones, the bows, the chairs and the other musicians–the narrator moves around a lot–and also played the tambourine in the final number with everybody taking part.

Which was Corelli’s legendary Allegro from Concerto grosso in D Major, except rearranged as a jam session between the instruments of the west, east and south with the percussion coming in loud and clear (Toller and Farahmand). A total burst of joy, ear-to-ear-grin ending to an emotional evening that was poignant and playful in turns and so smartly plotted out.

There’s one more performance left – at the big hall of the Toronto Centre for the Arts on Tuesday, January 23. Unmissable.

Safe Have – Tafelmusik. Photo by Jeff Higgins.

The Human Passions

The 15-16 season opener The Human Passions with Tafelmusik under the returning guest director Rodolfo Richter was a good mix: a Francesco Maria Veracini overture in four movements, two Handel arias for the mezzo / castrato (a Sesto aria from Giulio Cesare, “L’angue offeso mai riposa” and the now legendary “Scherza infida” from Ariodante), two Vivaldi arias plus a Vivaldi Concerto for bassoon, and the centrepiece, Bach’s Concerto for harpsichord D Minor transcribed and rearranged for the violin.

The Bach concerto comes with a history—Bach wrote it for the harpsichord by re-using the first two movements of this cantata, and the first movement of this one that only survives as a reconstruction. Richter heard this piece as a child and loved it since, and for this occasion transcribed it for his own instrument, while emboldening the woodwinds with three oboes and a bassoon. Violin and harpsichord are two very different sounds, and it was delightful trying to parallel-listen and guess, especially in the long notes and legato transitions of the violin, the sound of the short, crisp, staccato-y harpsichord. Imagine that the solo instrument here is the violin, and you’ll get the idea:

Another highlight last night was the concerto on the (period) bassoon, with Dominic Teresi as the soloist. It’s an unusual sound to associate with Vivaldi—who composed a whole lot of bassoon concertos in his lifetime, but they’re not nearly as frequently performed today as his violin concertos. The melismas and the semiquavers must be difficult as hell to play on this instrument, and I suppose part of the excitement in live performance is not being able to guess the type of sound that’s coming next. Period bassoon’s is not a beautiful sound, but it’s odd and appealing in its oddness. This was a very welcome diversion in a string-heavy concert.

Among the vocal pieces with the young light mezzo Mireille Lebel, the standout was “Scherza infida”. As I’m not a massive Vivaldi fan, “Gelida in ogni vena” from Farnace is for me a mannerisms trap (like so). “L’angue offeso mai riposa” from Handel’s Cesare is a rather humdrum Sesto aria (take Otter over JDiddy). Any number of other mezzo arias or cantata bits could have been chosen from Vivaldi–hey, “Cessate, omai cessate” is passionate enough–and Handel. But “Scherza infida” was a superlative choice. Though frequently performed and recorded around the world, it’s still rarely heard in Toronto, and the ensemble and the singer did it justice. The fine-tuning, the subtle changes of mood between the instruments and the voice, and the attention to the text were all excellent. Lebel started too dramatic but settled down into the right mode for this aria that is more of resignation than of fury. We lucked out with the da capo too, which was well-judged—and da capo ornaments, it turns out, were all entirely improvised.

The Trinity-St Paul is much more comfortable now with the new seats, so definitely worth a go. Repeat performances on Sep 17, 18, 19 and 20.

Rodolfo Richter and Tafelmusik play Corelli, Telemann, Vivaldi, Handel

Rodolfo Richter

An exciting season lies ahead for Tafelmusik and the HIP audiences of Toronto alike: some of the guest violinists/conductors we’ll be able to hear (if not all! they’re tactfully not revealing the names of the candidates) are actively being considered for the post of the new Music Director/First Violin.

The season opened on September 18 with Rodolfo Richter and the Handel Fireworks program, with a couple of festive, outdoorsy crowd-pleasers heavy on brass and woodwinds, the expected violin solo pyrotechnics piece, and two or three lesser known works. It’s the latter two that moved me the most last night, so I’ll begin there.

Corelli’s Concerto grosso in D Major, op. 6. no. 4 (1714) isn’t that often heard although it has a fairly well-known initial Allegro in which the first and the second violin josh in a sort of a call-and-response, a beautiful movement that can be played very differently by the different bands, depending on what kind of attack, balance, embellishments they go for. It can sound like a march of an even, fully-powered machine, or as a twirl of the spring winds, and last night’s performance was definitely of the flirting breezes kind. Richter and Christopher Verrette across the stage played together with great ease and it was a joy to eavesdrop on this conversation. Richter added a bit of brass to the concerto, to diversify the customarily strings-only sound, and it worked fine once the right balance was established (the brass and the woodwinds started off a little stronger than expected, but settled down in later movements). It was the beautiful piece of the program.

I expected Telemann’s Concerto for trumpet & violin in D Major to be on the pompous and ceremonious side—that’s what it sounds like on more than one recording–but this is what good musicians do: Richter performed it with such conviction that I had to leave the prejudgment behind. He put so much drama and vulnerable intensity in the second movement, Adagio, that there was no turning back: the final Allegro cemented the work as a piece that can seriously stir emotions. (The trumpet solo (John Thiessen) didn’t have a whole lot of flashy to do for the most part, other than act like a stoic subsumed partner to the solo violin.)

Handel’s Royal Fireworks piece was interesting in as much as it brought to the stage an unusual number of period brass players together with a percussionist. It’s the music that was meant to be played at a public fete with fireworks and I can listen to it as a historical curiosity only. On the upside, the wind instruments blended well with the Tafelstrings and there was pleasant melding—an accord–in the tone of the ensemble. I found myself in a similarly detached listening during Heinichen’s Serenata di Moritzburg, originally written to fill leisurely hours of an aristocratic ruler and today coming across as a piece of applied music, or flattery, or nobility marketing, even.

Vivaldi’s Il grosso Mogul concert, one of the composers most virtuoso creations, I expected to be dazzling in its pyrotechnics but a bit of a snooze otherwise (I keep thinking, whenever I hear it, This is just absurd… or, This is like the techno micro-variations—you lose interest after a while). But again Richter’s musicianship came to the rescue: he played “Mogul” as an intimate virtuoso piece—yes he wedded the two opposites—and while the pyrotechnics were all there, he seemed to have decided to tone down the volume (literally, too: the solo extravaganza cadenza was entirely played in about mezzo forte to piano) and engage the listener on a more profound level. What can I say? I won’t be giving up on “Mogul” just yet.

Rodolfo Richter and Tafelmusik repeat the program tonight, tomorrow Saturday 20th and Sunday 21stmore info and tickets. Don’t miss the Talkbacks after the concert, they’re informative and fun.

Tafelmusik-Photo by SianRichards
The musicians of Tafelmusik. Photo credit Sian Richards.

Il Giardino d’Amore concert in Toronto

Maria Guzowska and Katarzyna CichonAs I mentioned in my previous post, the beautiful young people of Il Giardino d’Amore are in town, thanks to the presenter Mooredale Concerts. They performed today, Sunday October 20 at Walter Hall.

What stood out for me:

– the excellent lute and guitar player, Maria Guzowska. She was the only accompanist  to the soprano in Charpentier’s “Celle qui fait tout mon tourment”, for which she also improvised the percussion, and she had another notable solo sections in–if memory serves–Caresana’s “Dorme nimo”. The rest of the time she was a key person in the continuo. I hope we’ll see her again, with this or another band.

– the continuo was good and solid, and held the entire edifice together. Marco Vitale was at the harpsichord and Katarzyna Cichon at the cello: I wish the two were allowed more room to shine and more leadership opportunities and solos. The violins, usually leading the baroque ensemble, were today utterly disjointed (it sounded like there were five of them, rather than three or two, and each sounded differently tuned). One of the violinists came comically under-prepared, with a wrong stash of music and without his own music stand. The music director and the first violin Stefan Plewniak’s own playing in the very first number, Vivaldi’s Concerto for Violin “Il Grosso Mogul”, sounded slightly out of tune. (At first I thought maybe Vivaldi wanted to make a joke so he made the entire concerto chromatic, but no: I came home, listed to another version of the same concerto on Rdio, and realized that that was not the case.) By the final Concerto grosso by Corelli, Il Giardino managed to meld and sound like a real ensemble playing together. But that was the end of the concert. The band did not prepare an encore, although the audience was willing.

Natalia Kawalek has a lovely voice, especially when it travels to its high register. She sang only a short segment from the wonderful “Cessate, omai cessate”, and she sang it well, but it’s a shame that it ended so quickly: I was left wanting to hear more, the entire wide range of this cantata. I was left with the impression of a good voice, somewhat underused and under-challenged in this program. In her second appearance, Zebrowski’s “Suscepit Israel” she showed off her angelic, youthful inflections, and in “Celle qui fait mon tourment” was finally a bit more daring. The text was somewhat under-digested, and she had to rely on the music stand, but all the same, the two of them, Guzowska and Kawalek, managed to pull it off.

– The introductions to the program done by Plewniak at the beginning of each half of the concert did not help one bit! He seemed unprepared, but also as if he did not particularly care to remember what the items in the program are about. Here’s a suggestion: why not somebody else from the ensemble do the intro talk about the program? The music director doesn’t have to do everything. Why not one of the players, or the musician about to sing, tell us more about what we are about to hear? The program itself was rather light, with many short arias, one discarded number and no encores. I have the impression that these musicians can do much better than that.

Il Giardino d’Amore performed at Walter Hall, University of Toronto Department of Music, 80 Queen’s Park Cres.

Il Giardino d'Amore - post concertFar left Marco Vitale, fourth from the left Natalia Kawalek, red trousers Maria Guzowska, next to her with the cello Katarzyna Cichon. Far right, Stefan Plewniak, music director

L’Oracolo in Messenia è proprio un miracolo

Vivaldi L'Oracolo in Messenia

Vivaldi – L’Oracolo in Messenia – Fabio Biondi conducts Europa Galante, EMI/Virgin/Wiener Konzerthaus, 2012.

An embarrassment of riches, this recording: loads of gorgeous, unusual arias bridged by dramatic recits and lament-monologues; five very different mezzos spiced with fabulous tenor and counter-tenor; a daring, cheeky baroque orchestra that never settles for just a background.

The mature mezzo character, the queen Merope, is sung by Ann Hallenberg with the customary stylistic and technical mastery. She equally shines in the soliloquies of the type reminiscent of the long solos of Monteverdi and French baroque (No. 15 “Ecco pur giunto il giorno” on the first CD and No. 24 “Sei dolor, sei furor” on the second) as in the more traditional baroque arias (just compare her “Barbaro traditor” with “No, non meriti pietà” – both angry arias but sounding very different). She is also splendid in the recitatives, woven through by a bold, restless harpsichord, which will keep you interested at every turn. Her first argument with Polifonte (Magnus Staveland) is a complex business. The undercurrent of the harpsichord adds layers to the conversation, possibly even some erotic tension.

Speaking of Polifonte, the male voices are not shortchanged. Staveland gets, for example, “Se al cader del mostro orrendo”, with a most unusual and brilliant orchestral legwork, one of the top five in this work full of wonderfully weird music, or “Nel mar così funesta” with orchestral sections in all their unrestrained glory alternating for the tyrant’s benefit. Anassandro (Xavier Sabata) is probably the most complicated character of all, in charge of twisting the plot, shifting alliances and fighting his own demons. Sabata manages to make him very believable.

Trasimede, one of the trouser roles, is sung by the young Yulia Lezhneva. S/he pines for Merope and delivers perfectly the mad coloratura arias like “Son qual nave” and “Sin campo armato”. There are all manner of colours in her voice, and she employs the spectrum.  The ingénue (Elmira), in yet another atypical turn, is sung by the darkest voice on cast, Romina Basso. An aria that stands out is “Spera quest’alma amante”.

Elmira’s love interest and Merope’s son Epitide is Vivica Genaux, whose lighter timbre of a young man suits the role well. The remaining trousered mezzo Franziska Gottwald (Licisco) has a very different voice, darker and smaller and intricate – equivalent of a rose in bud which sometimes opens to the benefit of others too. Licisco’s “Sinche il tiranno scendere” is a very exciting ride.

The booklet contains, inter alia, a very interesting piece by Frédéric Delaméa about how the work came to be and the full libretto translated into English, German and French.


Prima Donna — Karina Gauvin’s new CD

Karina Gauvin Prima Donna with Arion Orchestre Baroque, music director Alexander Weimann. ATMA Classique, 2012. Presto Classical, Grigorian, Amazon.

All the arias by Handel in this collection were either created or reworked in revivals specifically for soprano Anna Maria Strada del Pò.

A few on the playlist are little known Handel, the role of Adelaide in Lotario, and Elmira from Sosarme, for instance. “Scherza in mar” from Lotario is one of those treasures in miniature form, with the A section stating that a small ship sailing serenely will be easily drowned by the sea storm that is likely gathering, and the section B insisting that no, the narrator’s soul will not yield to fear if faced with similar rage of fate, even if it brings death. The music expresses all the changes of imagery and the coloratura runs in waves of a restless sea.

“Dite pace” from Sosarme is probably the fastest, most fireworks-y aria on the disc, a scream aimed toward the implacable heavens. “Tortorella se rimira” from Astianatte, not by Handel but by Leonardo Vinci (1696-1730), is in a resigned andante, about a turtle dove observing her companion caught in a snare. In addition to the usual (agile, dazzling Gauvin coloratura), there are moments of onomatopoeic gurgle of a turtle, and also some incredibly measured and mellifluous ornamentation in the second round.

In the less obscure group, there are two Angelica arias from Handel’s Orlando (“No, non potra” and “Verdi pianti”) and one from Flavio (“Da te parto”). Then there is the block-buster section of the recording, comprised of Alcina arias, the role also written for del Pò. You may think, do I need to hear Alcina’s arias one more time, after so many brilliant renditions, recorded and live? Yes, you do: Gauvin reinvents these to sound like you’re hearing them for the first time. Beginning from the recit “Ah Ruggier crudel” which sounds like a dramatic aria in Gauvin’s treatment, continuing with “Ombre pallide”, “Si, son quella” and “Ah mio cor” all sounding unfamiliarly beautiful. There’s the usual Gauvin metallic sheen and ease across the registers, serious darkness in the gravi, the muscle in the middle, and the gleaming top, but also a dramatic subtlety of the type in evidence in a live opera performance, and a full ownership the text.

One qualm: would have been nice to read the names of musicians and what instruments they are playing, but the booklet only lists the director Alexander Weimann for the entire Arion Orchestre Baroque. One big cheer: it’s fantastic that the government of Canada, through Canada Music Fund, invests in musical culture by helping to fund recordings like this one.

Tension, Suspension, Text: A Conversation with Rinaldo Alessandrini

Music director of Concerto Italiano Rinaldo Alessandrini is in Toronto this month, conducting Handel’s Semele at the Canadian Opera Company.

A version of this interview appears in a much prettier print layout in Corriere Canadese’s Tandem next week.

This Semele is on modern instruments. How big is the transition from playing it on a period ensemble?

It’s totally different. It’s important not to expect from the so-called modern orchestra what you would get from a period orchestra. Period instruments allow certain types of articulation… you can explain the effect but the way of getting there is different because the instruments are so different. It’s important to know what the final effect should be and how to achieve it. When you start working with a modern orchestra, you have to give a lot of condensed information about the meaning of staccato, the special use of the bow, the difference between sustaining the sound without vibrato or with vibrato… You have to give a sort of summary of sound possibilities related to the musical situation. That is absolutely interesting because in the process the conductor is discovering different ways to approach the same problem. And the orchestra is hopefully discovering different ways to approach the music.

You start by saying, Handel is not Verdi. So let’s see where the borderlines of this music are; let’s see what this music is offering in terms of sound, use of the sound, and then what this means in terms of the bow, left hand, articulation, vibrato, use of the dynamics and so on. I would say that it’s like learning a new language.

Did you have to reduce the orchestra?

No. It’s a big orchestra; we have 18 violinists. That makes things a little bit more tricky but it’s OK. It’s a very good orchestra with very intelligent musicians. What I like about this orchestra is that the quality is increasing every night, it’s fantastic. This means that the orchestra is able to assimilate and to give better results every night.

I read somewhere that in spite of the many pastoral and magical moments, Handel didn’t use any flutes or recorders in Semele, and bassoons very rarely…

In terms of wind instruments, there are only oboes and horns; and horns for just a couple of numbers. No, most of the music is strings only.

Yet the music sounds very diverse.

We should keep in mind is that it is not an opera – it’s an oratorio. And it is evident that the main focus is on virtuosity of the vocal line, especially with Semele and Jupiter. In terms of orchestration, Semele is quite simple; in terms of the concept, it’s a very interesting work where in addition to the chorus numbers, which Handel didn’t use in his operas, there are a lot of accompagnatos, and some of them very complicated.

Now would be a good moment to explain the difference between the recitativo accompagnato and recitativo secco.

Secco is mainly a style of composition, but for the singer it’s a style of singing. During a secco, singers are accompanied only with the basso continuo, so mainly the harpsichord and the cello. And for accompagnato, the orchestra is playing together. Secco recits are very simple and they are based only on a kind of spoken rhythm. They are not in tempo. The concept behind secco is that singers are mainly speaking through singing, and the rhythm is the rhythm of speech. In the accompagnatos, the vocal line is similar to the secco recits but they should be sung in tempo because the vocal line is part of the rhythm of the orchestra. However, the accompagnato is still different from the aria: most of the time, there is no melodic development, the style is always almost speech, only in tempo. The orchestra is very useful in the accompagnatos because it is in fact amplifying some concept or some image, or underlying some very special theatrical and dramatic moments that need stronger emphasis.

The COC Semele is in modern pitch?

Yes. The talk about the pitch is not at all simple, though. 440Hz is an historical pitch too; this kind of very high pitch’s been used inVenice, for example. All Vivaldi operas should be performed in 440, and before Vivaldi, the pitch was even higher. In Monteverdi’s time the pitch was 520. And inFranceit was 392. The right pitch for the right period takes some deliberation.

Today we mainly use three pitches, 440, 415 and 392. 440 for Italian music, 415 mainly for German music and for Handel, and 392 for French music.

What would you say makes Semele special and different from Handel’s other work?

I’d say the most important is the development of the solo vocal line. The role of Semele is really demanding – it’s fair to say, difficult. In fact it’s a role that can be approached only with a soprano that has no problems. I don’t want to say that this role is easy for Jane [Archibald] but she is the right person in the right place. You must have the coloratura for this role; moreover, you must have a kind of easy and mechanical coloratura for it.

Did you decide all the embellishments?

I worked with the singers. Normally I can have my ideas, but ornamentation is a very delicate question for singers. It’s usually presumed that when they sing ornamentation added to the original line, they do this to show off their voices. This means that, of course, you can recompose. But you cannot be sure that what you recompose will fit a particular singer.  So I spend time at the piano showing different possibilities, five, six, ornamenting some passages and letting singers decide, OK, I like this, I feel engaged with this kind of writing or not. Same with cadenzas, starting with some simple structures and adding more and more until the singer says, OK, this is perfect for me.

Is there enough written evidence to tell us what singers of the time did with their embellishments, if they wrote them out in advance of performance, if they improvised…?

We have some documents about ornamentation. The ornamentation was used for creating a moment of musical tension. But it is probably false to say that the singing was more improvised. At that time, singers went through a long and hard training and in the course of their schooling they would work on a lot of passages and different formulas. The skill was to try to transform the passage, to adapt it to the harmony of the piece. They would be using a small portion of the melodic line, creating a progression, whatever, and trying to give the impression that they were improvising, while in fact they were not. They were very intelligent, they sang exactly what was best for their voices and tried to adapt some very well known and much worked on passage to the music for which they were hired. This was the most prized skill. I mean, it’s stupid to take a risk with improvising. It’s a very strange concept. I think that nobody really improvises, not even Keith Jarrett. A real improvisation, when you start from nothing, is a very strange concept. And I would say that in baroque music, improvisation is almost non-existent. The baroque music — in different ways in the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries — is based on the possibility of a managed rhetorical code. You must know this code, must know the elements that belong to this code, and your skill is to produce certain effects based on your mastery of this code. It’s very important to learn all the rules. Like an orator who seems to be improvising, but in fact not. He rehearses beforehand, he puts together the elements and constructs an elaborate speech, and at the time of delivery he gives the impression that he is improvising. It’s a question of simulation, rather than improvising. When you’re improvising, you are putting yourself in a risky situation; it can be good if you feel inspired, but if you don’t, it can be a disaster. So it’s very false to say, Oh, back in baroque, the music of freedom, inspiration… absolutely not true. Exactly the opposite.

Where do you stand on cuts? Whoever does a baroque opera today has to cut something.

In this case it’s been the choice of the stage director. It’s a revival and not a new production, so technically, it’s very difficult to re-discuss previous decisions about the production. Concluding the opera with the final F Minor chorus is a very precise choice; the director was very interested in giving this kind of aesthetic information that is absolutely different from Handel’s idea. I would say it’s a very romantic attitude.

It ends on a sad note.

Yes. Semele at the end is deus ex machina but this being a revival, it’s impossible to re-discuss because it would mean a total change in the concept of the staging.

But cutting is normal. All operas, not only baroque, up until the late nineteenth century, were conceived for particular singers. When you change the cast, you cannot pretend that any old singer is able to sing whatever you composed for the original singer. So for example, change of key was absolutely normal practise… When you cut, you probably do that because a singer is not feeling at ease in a particular aria. The aria was probably conceived for a special technical ability; if another singer doesn’t have that exact technical gift, he’s not to blame. You cut the aria.

Today it’s a little bit difficult; today you try to save the original set of arias. But still. When you look at Monteverdi’s Poppea in Cavalli’s manuscript for example, it’s totally changed, with some roles re-composed. He had different singers and different ranges. The role of Ottone is completely different and completely composed by Cavalli.

First of all, Monteverdi tended not to give male roles to female voices. Even the Nerone was probably originally for tenor.

Oh. I thought you were going to say “Alto” and was getting ready to rejoice.

No, but Ottone is considered an alto; in fact it’s a very strange range, which probably tells us that its original singer for whom Cavalli wrote had a unique voice.

So works of art are living, breathing, changing things.

Baroque operas are. I am not a specialist for bel canto, but we know for example that in Rossini operas there are a lot of different versions of arias, ensemble pieces eccetera. Changing cast, changing theatre, changing pitch in parts of opera… all that brings its own effects. Today when we perform Semele, it’s in a way a celebration of Handel. We go to hear what is supposed to be Semele… In Handel’s time, there were a lot of arias that he composed at the very beginning of his career (especially in his Italian period when he was working presumably with some very good singers) that he had to simplify for other performances because the new singers weren’t up to the task.

Let’s talk about your discography. I’ll begin by asking you about the Vivaldi edition. Today, the labels are reluctant to record complete operas, but Naïve / Opus 111 are doing this huge Vivaldi series which includes a number of operas.

Concerto Italiano and I left a little bit the Vivaldi Edition for now because we’ve done a lot. We’ve done two operas, we’ve done Vespri per l’Assunzione, we’ll probably do a second recording of sacred music, possibly another Vespers disc. We are talking about this currently, but it will not happen in the very near future.

The project is mainly related to a library in Torino, so a regional bank, San Paolo, decided to donate the money. At the very beginning when the label was Opus 111 (not Naïve), the project was called Music in Piedmont, but since most of Vivaldi’s manuscripts are in this university library in Torino, the project was transformed into the Vivaldi Edition. But they are not planning to record any of the printed music, say L’estro armonico or Il cimento dell’armonia; they will not record the concertos from the Dresden library or other libraries. They are focusing only on the Torino manuscripts, and almost 90 percent of all Vivaldi’s music is in Torino.

You recorded some amazing CDs of madrigals. Gesualdo and Marenzio still rarely get performed and recorded.

Madrigals can be used for learning about music… It’s a highly composed speech, put it that way. First of all, madrigal gives you the opportunity to see how music and poetry can go together. Then the next step is to see how the melodic line can underline the meaning of the verse. And when you consider only the melodic line and forget the verse for a moment, you learn a lot about music. When you perform purely instrumental music, you can see how the madrigal influenced instrumental music. All the musical effects in pure instrumental music come from the madrigal—harmony, lines… in fact, the madrigal is probably the most important point for the Western music because via the madrigal the composers brought about a huge reformation of the Western music at the beginning of the seventeenth century. I am talking about making the music coincide with the feeling of the text. That was absolutely unusual in the sixteenth century. In the seventeenth, the composers went, OK we have some good poetry, why can’t we try to put it together with music and create a joint effect between music and text. Sounds simple today, but at the time it was new. Opera took a lot from the madrigal.

And I think that madrigal music can be a little bit difficult because it’s in Italian and you cannot listen to this music if you don’t understand the words. A lot of poets were used for madrigals, but most often, the composer would choose among a limited pool of poems.

Because of the metrics, number of syllables and such?

No, because of the expressivity of those poems. The attitude was, OK let’s listen to this new version of “Ardo si ma non t’amo”. This was a well known poem and the pleasure was to listen to something well known dressed in different instruments. Or “Zefiro torna”, or whatever. Most frequently used poets were Tasso, Guarini, Petrarca. Marino. It’s a very special pleasure that is lost today, because the first urge is to listen to the music but the music is only part of the pleasure. For madrigals, the first step was not to listen to the music but to be familiar with the text. To be familiar with the image and the sensation of the text. And when finally you own the text and you feel it personally, then listen to it set to the music, it is fantastic. But if you just listen to the music, it can be fine, the music is beautiful, but you lose 70 percent of the pleasure.

I like madrigals. Were I ever to be asked, “What kind of music would you like to do for the rest of your life”, I would answer “Madrigals”. There is this kind of incredible tension in the madrigal, this incredible concentration of information, of music and text together. You start and your breath is suspended until the end. It’s so tense and compact and detailed at the same time. Madrigals were in fashion back in the nineties, I remember we’ve done a lot of madrigal concerts then. But today… I’m not sure.

At any rate, we have to finish our Monteverdi series of madrigals. We should record the three remaining books. We recorded 2, 4, 5, 6 and 8. Next year we’ll probably record the 1, 3 and 7. And in 2014 we have a huge project in Paris– we are going to do the three Monteverdi operas at the Palais Garnier, so Naïve is interested in presenting the complete madrigals at the same time. We’ve already done L’Orfeo and Ulisse at La Scala, as this is a co-production between La Scala & Opera Bastille.

For Ulisse in September last year, the house was sold out all six times. And I insisted on having the Italian cast, even though it’s been a lot of work to teach them all to speak the same language.

After that, the revival of Poppea in February 2015 at La Scala.

And what’s coming immediately after the Toronto Semele?

A concert with Concerto Italiano, and coming in the summer, concerts with modern orchestras. Mozart, Haydn. My next opera production is in 2013 in Oslo– I’ll be doing Orfeo by Gluck. I know the orchestra very well, it will be a pleasure to go back to Oslo.

Lydia Perović

Photo by Eric Larrayadieu