Rhinegold Photo credit: Sim Canetty-Clarke
John Eliot-Gardiner with the Monteverdi apprentices in November 2015.

Alexandra Coghlan

Monteverdi and me

9:00, 15th December 2016

‘A scientist of human psychology’ – so Sir John Eliot Gardiner describes Monteverdi. Alexandra Coghlan speaks with the conductor about his busy upcoming year, and about times past.

‘I’ve got to make sure I give my performers enough room to grow through the project, that I set down certain stylistic parameters but allow them to evolve within these. I believe it just might be really radical, a proper reappraisal of Monteverdi.

‘Monteverdi has always been a kind of lodestone for me’. Credit: Sim Canetty-Clarke

‘I remember this wonderfully elegant but severe-looking French lady with a baritonal voice and a tremendous passion for music. She conducted us in pieces that were so adult in their emotions, so full of the colours of Tuscany, Venice, Mantua – it made an extraordinary impression on me.’ John Eliot Gardiner was just seven when he first encountered the music of Monteverdi. Taken along to the Bryanston Summer School by his mother, he joined a group of amateur singers all clutching the new Malipiero edition of the composer’s madrigals. Who was the ‘French lady’ directing proceedings? None other than Nadia Boulanger.

This privileged introduction to Monteverdi set the tone for a career that may have delved deep into Bach, roamed widely to the works of Beethoven, Berlioz, Debussy and Mozart, but which has always returned to the music of Italy’s 17th-century master. It was Monteverdi who gave his name to Gardiner’s own ensemble, who provided the repertoire for their very first concert on 5 March 1964 – a performance of the Monteverdi Vespers that would shake the fragile foundations of the early music movement.

Now, more than 50 years on, Gardiner returns to this music, devoting much of 2017 to a project of unprecedented scope and scale, taking the composer’s three surviving operas – L’Orfeo, L’incoronazione di Poppea and Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria – around the world with a handpicked company of singers for a cycle of meticulously conceived concert performances.

‘Monteverdi has always been a kind of lodestone for me,’ explains Gardiner. ‘He has exerted a magnetic pull on my life. Everything I came across as a student at Cambridge was so foreign to the way I thought music could be, from its sound quality to its ability to reflect human emotions and passions. I was going to Evensong at King’s and feeling desperately frustrated. Our performance of the Monteverdi Vespers was a way of harnessing the English choral discipline to a completely different chariot, one that was dangerously explosive, full of highly contrasted emotions. It was also the litmus test, the piece that would reveal whether I had the wherewithal to become a musician.’


A brand new company

Gardiner shakes his head at his own ‘foolhardy’ bravura, but if this performance was a test then it was one the young conductor passed with honours, putting not only him but also a whole new swathe of repertoire back on the radar of British performers. Having lived with this music now for many decades, surprisingly little has changed in his approach: ‘I’m not aiming for anything fundamentally different in these performances than I was back in 1964. I still want to celebrate Monteverdi’s unique palette of colours and his huge gamut of emotions. And I still think it’s critical that the continuo band understand not just the harmony and counterpoint but also the rhetoric of the music. At any moment they should be capable of singing the words as opposed to plucking or bowing.’

Gardiner has assembled a brand new company of singers and instrumentalists for this project, many of whom he has never worked with before. An initial workshop in Venice this April plunged the performers into a series of intensive musical encounters, many of them based around the composer’s madrigals, and all designed to foster the sense of ensemble identity that Gardiner hopes will turn three individual operas into a unified artistic triptych – a major landmark in the history of Monteverdi performance.

‘I’ve got to make sure I give my performers enough room to grow through the project, that I set down certain stylistic parameters but allow them to evolve within these. It may turn out to be less wonderful than I hope, but I believe it just might be really radical, a proper reappraisal of Monteverdi. There have been some wonderful performances of his music over the years but they have often lurched from one extreme to the other. Think of The Consort of Musicke in the 1970s and 80s and their wonderful clarity of sound. They were a very good corrective to the indulgence of Raymond Leppard that came before. Then you’ve got Harnoncourt who is a sort of curious mixture of Leppard-style expansion and period style. And then the Italian groups arrive on the scene. They’ve done marvellous, pioneering work, but I don’t think it’s the last word, the be all and end all of interpretation.’


The scientist

Gardiner describes Monteverdi as ‘a scientist of human psychology’, placing him alongside the very greatest artists of the human condition. ‘Caravaggio takes peasants and prostitutes and turns them into the Madonna or the disciples, and you find that same friction between high and low in Shakespeare – his tragedies and histories are webbed through with different social strata. It’s something we see clearly in Monteverdi’s operas too, especially the Venetian ones.

‘Think of the two soldiers in Poppea who grumble about Nero’s affair with Poppea, seeing the relationship from a plebeian, everyman point of view, or Valletto and Damigella the servants, who bring a wonderful earthiness to the court. Of course the irony is that it’s the aristocrats Poppea and Nerone whose relationship is most nakedly carnal and base – carnality shot through with veniality, political ambition and sheer ruthlessness. The most baffling aspect of the opera is why we are so attracted by this couple. When you get to the end and hear their final love duet you want so much to believe it, even though you know it’s pure opportunism in both cases.”

While Gardiner has a long history with both Poppea and L’Orfeo, he’ll be conducting Ulisse for the first time as part of this project. It’s a work that has struggled to find the same foothold in opera houses as the Venetian operas, much the least popular of the three works. Does Gardiner see it as the weak link?

‘Far from it. I think, if anything, it’s the most Shakespearean of the operas, establishing a wonderful friction between court and countryside, between a seedy, greedy world and the bucolic innocence of the shepherds. Perhaps the reason audiences have taken longer to get to know and love it is its theme. Poppea will always be popular because it is titillating, salacious. Ulisse is all about fidelity, which is a deeply unfashionable and frankly rather unsexy subject nowadays. But the human characters are so fascinatingly portrayed, whether it’s Penelope’s courageous resistance to her suitors or Ulisse’s pent-up anger and frustration.”

The three operas will all be presented in concert performances – something Gardiner sees as expanding, rather than restricting, their dramatic impact. ‘I have a natural antipathy to the proscenium arch as the only way to present opera. It carries with it a baggage, a certain preconception on the part of the audience that the eye should dominate over the ear, and that to me is limiting. For this kind of intimate 17th-century opera you don’t need an orchestra pit or a proscenium arch. What you do need are a series of very strong dramatic juxtapositions: singer to singer, player to player, singer to player. Those confrontations and harmonisations need to be represented physically on a concert platform.

‘Because an audience attending a concert has totally different expectations to those of an opera-going audience, I think you can play on those expectations and subvert them more easily in the context of a concert hall. Will the operas be dramatic? Of course – intensely dramatic. Will there be surprise entrances and exits? Yes. Will there be a sense of the miraculous and the magical and the other-worldly? I hope so. I think an audience’s imagination, once stimulated, is infinitely richer than anything a clever stage director can come up with. So it becomes a question of creating a dramatic language and a series of conventions that allow that imagination to fly free.’

The surviving scores of all three operas each present a certain amount of ambiguity, leaving many musical choices up to the performers. While Gardiner is keen to follow the composer’s orchestration closely where possible, he’s also keen to embrace a certain fluidity, a flexibility in his performances. ‘I don’t believe – particularly the in case of Poppea and Ulisse – in following the instructions we have to the letter. That hair-shirt approach holds little interest for me. I’ll be adjusting the instrumentation throughout the tour depending on the proportions and dimensions of the spaces in which we perform, and I’m sure textures will also evolve as the tour progresses.’

It’s a response typical of a conductor who may have spent a career at the vanguard of early music performance, but who still has no patience with its more dogmatic or absolutist attitudes. ‘There is an underlying assumption among period practitioners that if you get the stylistic and technical aspects of a composer correct (whatever that means) that suddenly you have the key to the secret door into his musical world. I think that’s baloney. I think the key to a composer’s musical world is only created from a mixture of intuition, hard work, practice and experience. And it will always be evolving, never finite. It’s so important to realise when performing this repertoire that one is creating and sustaining a living tradition, not performing an exercise in autopsy.’

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