Portland Opera and The Ensemble reviews: Sacred and secular Venice

Two programs show very different sides of 17th century Italian music

by TERRY ROSS

Patrick McDonough’s vocal group The Ensemble has proven, in more than a dozen concerts over the past several years, that it is an invaluable part of musical life in the Northwest. By itself and in collaboration with other groups vocal and instrumental, it invariably presents concerts that not only offer familiar music of the 18th and earlier centuries but also bring the names of unjustly forgotten composers to our attention. Its latest series of concerts, on January 20-22 in Tacoma, Eugene, and Portland, illustrate this mission brilliantly.

In a program called Venetian Vespers: Vespers for Saint Agnes — Virgin & Martyr, The Ensemble teamed up with singers from Anne Lyman’s Tacoma group Canonici and Hideki Yamaya’s Portland instrumental ensemble Musica Maestrale to present an elaborate Vespers service in concert without intermission, consisting of Gregorian chant, expertly sung by alto Kerry McCarthy, and large and small motets for from one to ten singers.

The Ensemble and friends performed the Venetian Vespers program in Eugene, Portland, and Vancouver.

The composers represented ranged from the famous (Claudio Monteverdi, 1567-1643) and less famous (Alessandro Grandi, 1586-1630) to the relatively obscure (Dario Castello, c.1590-c.1658) to the virtually unknown (Chiara Margarita Cozzolani, 1602-1678), with special emphasis given to Cozzolani. She had four substantial pieces on the program, all of them featuring homophony (all voices singing together) and antiphony (voices separated into two choirs doing call and response), and her music was the surprise of the evening because it was so accomplished and unknown.

Turns out she was one of the nuns, in fact the abbess, of a convent that was famous for its musicians in the middle of the 17th century. A contemporary writer found that “the nuns of Santa Radegonda of Milan are gifted with such rare and exquisite talents in music that they are acknowledged to be the best singers of Italy. They wear the Cassinese habits of St. Benedict, but they seem to any listener to be white and melodious swans, who fill hearts with wonder, and spirit away tongues in their praise. Among these sisters, Donna Chiara Margarita Cozzolani merits the highest praise, Chiara in name but even more so in merit, and Margarita for her unusual and excellent nobility of invention.”

Although I had never heard or heard of Cozzolani before this concert, I couldn’t agree more. Her music deserves to be performed as frequently as that of other 17th-century masters.

The great man himself, Monteverdi, turned up in three pieces, a trio, a solo, and an extended piece. The trio Salve Regina was the most expressive piece of the evening, using all of the master’s sighing motifs, appoggiaturas, and unexpected chromaticism and key changes. Kerry McCarthy, tenor Nicholas Ertsgaard, and bass David Stutz sang it with feeling. Sopranos Mel Downie Robinson and Anne Lyman did very well in the larger piece, Laudate Dominum, but the best performing of the concert came in the solo piece Jubilet totat civitas, best not only because it was sung beautifully but because California soprano Tonia D’Amelio “performed” the piece, seeking direct contact with her audience with facial expressions and body language. Would that more performers of “old” music learned her lesson and abandoned their wooden stage presence.

It remains only to praise alto Laura Beckel-Thoreson for one of the loveliest voices in the Northwest.

‘Songs of Love and War’: Good, dirty fun

A very different take on roughly the same period of music is available in Portland Opera’s current production, Songs of Love and War, a title taken from the 8th book of Monteverdi’s madrigals. The difference is in the form and style of presentation, because early music performance nowadays by the ensembles devoted to it is very different from the performance of opera. Although Portland Opera’s show contains no opera per se, but rather arrangements of 20 of Monteverdi’s madrigals into a sort of staged and costumed narrative, the advantage of their approach over the more staid, stand-still-and-sing approach of The Ensemble (Ms. D’Amelio excepted) was very apparent in this sort of intimate music.

Portland Opera’s ‘Songs of Love and War’ continues through Saturday at the Hampton Opera Center.

Monteverdi’s peerless madrigals are anything but coy in expressing emotion, from despair and ecstasy to doubt and jealousy — all the temperatures from frigid to boiling. It makes perfect sense to do what General Director Christopher Mattaliano has done, perhaps in emulation of the Renaissance composer Orazio Vecchi (1550-1605), who is credited with having invented the “madrigal comedy.” By stringing together madrigals dealing in one way or another with love (and sexual love, at that), and by having his six singers dress in silk nightgowns and robes and brandish plenty of skin while hamming it up deliciously, Mattaliano has not cheapened Monteverdi; he has given him his due as the composer of the first opera still regularly performed (Orfeo, 1607) and also the masterpiece The Coronation of Poppea (1642). Monteverdi did not invent opera, but he immensely broadened its emotional scope.

Mattaliano’s six singers, all suitably young(ish) and attractive, perform yeoman duty while jumping into and out of a huge bed at center stage, pulling and tugging and embracing one another, interacting with the audience, who are seated on all sides of Portland Opera’s studio theater in the round, and all the while singing while prostrate, supine, walking, running, or apparently sleeping. I found mezzo-soprano Kate Farrar and baritone Ryan Thorn’s voices the strongest of the six, the only ones I could imagine soloing on a much larger stage. And Lindsay Ohse goes some way toward stealing the show with her vivid, coy-yet-salacious acting.

It’s an audacious and thoroughly charming evening, and not only because of the free glass of wine the audience members are allowed to bring into the theater.

Portland Opera’s Songs of Love and War runs through February 25 at The Hampton Opera Center,  211 SE Caruthers St. Portland. Tickets online or at  (800) 982-ARTS .

Recommended recordings

Gregorian Chant
The Gregorian Organ, Mark Williams, organist, and the men of Cantores in Ecclesia (Pro Organo CD 7225), 2009.

Cozzolani, Chiara Margarita
Dialogues with Heaven: Motets by Chiara Margarita Cozzolani, Music Secreta (Linn Records, CKD 113), 2000.

Grandi, Alessandro
Motetti a cinque voci (1614), Musica Secreta (divine art 25062), 2007.

Monteverdi, Claudio
• Selva Morale e Spirituale, Vol. 1, The Sixteen, Harry Christophers conducting (Coro, COR16087), 2010.

Castello, Dario
Ghirlanda Sacra: Il Mottetto a voce sola a Venezia, Arte Musica conducted by Francesco Sera (Tactus), 2006.

Terry Ross is a Portland freelance journalist and the director of The Classical Club, through which he offers classical music appreciation sessions. He can be reached at classicalclub@comcast.net.

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