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The Past Master

The New Art

Act 2 of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo begins in a sunlit meadow. Orpheus and his pals — nymphs, shepherds, homeless — are celebrating his recent marriage to Euridice. Orpheus, the greatest singer of the day, spins off song after song on his “golden lyre” to the happiest of harmonies. Suddenly a dark figure blots out the sunshine, the harmony turns minor, and the melodies become halting; the Messenger has brought the news of Euridice’s death. All through the history of opera as drama — which can be said to have begun at this moment, at the Gonzaga Palace in Mantua in 1607 — music has served to underline and make thrilling the element of surprise: Susanna’s emergence from the closet in The Marriage of Figaro, Siegmund pulling the sword in Die Walküre; the general unmasking in Falstaff. This is where it happened first, the soft, subtle but unmistakable shift from major to minor harmonies, underscored by a change from high to low instruments, as death’s shadow darkens the stage in the world’s first great opera.

This moment, and the rest of the supreme accomplishments as Monteverdi fashioned his “new art” from the different kinds of musical drama that he and his Renaissance colleagues had already brought to high estate, is brilliantly set forth in Opera’s First Master, an uncommonly well-told accounting of Monteverdi’s operatic legacy by Mark Ringer, a New York director, dramaturge and writer (Amadeus Press — also my publisher — paperback, $29.95). What Mr. Ringer has done here is to create — rare, in my experience — writing about great music so close to the music itself that it can be read almost like a score. There is no jargon here, no Karl Haas/Jim Svejda/Alan Rich gobbledygook.

Read (and, virtually, listen to) this brief sample (I abbreviate slightly): “ ‘Ah, bitter event! Ah, impious and cruel fate!’ sings the Messenger, in a grating minor-key recitative. Incredulous, the tenor Shepherd keeps to his major key when he asks ‘What sounds of mourning perturb this happy day?’ But the setting of the last word, ‘perturba,’ creates a brief dissonance, suggesting the upward inflection of the voice at the end of a question and a sense of foreboding . . .”

Trying to write about any kind of abstraction — music, the visual arts, another writer’s style — should embody the urge to send the reader back to the source; Ringer’s triumph is that I sit here with my desk strewn with Monteverdi: L’Orfeo on a Virgin-Veritas CD with Ian Bostridge, The Return of Ulysses and The Coronation of Poppea in the René Jacobs discs on Harmonia Mundi, half a dozen DVDs. His book brings them marvelously to life, and by doing so re-creates a marvelous era in the arts. Whether I know the work already or not, his kind of writing communicates a deep and honorable appetite for the music under his enthusiastic examination.

The Public Art

L’Orfeo was created for invited guests at a grand palazzo. Three decades later, opera for a ticket-buying public had become a reality, and Monteverdi was in Venice, composing for that public. A compact disc bound into the cover of Ringer’s book provides a pretty good measure of how public taste in opera had developed in the three or more decades between L’Orfeo and the great works that survive from his time as resident composer at the first — or perhaps second — public opera, the Teatro di SS Giovanni e Paolo, which opened in Venice in 1639. Already by then the public taste for fine vocal work was on the rise — not only showoff virtuosity but also deep, expressive singing. From The Return of Ulysses the disc includes Penelope’s great aria of longing with the heartbreaking refrain “Return, oh return, Ulysses.” If you remember the way Frederica von Stade sang it with the Los Angeles Opera a few years back, or hear how Bernarda Fink sings it on this disc (or on the Jacobs recording on Harmonia Mundi whence it comes), you’ll know that, all the way back to 1640, opera had already gained the power to move, and to break, human hearts.

But there is something even more wonderful in Ulysses, and reading Ringer’s excellent description of the very last music makes me want to spend a day or two just running and rerunning that final scene. Ulysses has returned after all those years, killed off all the hangers-on around Penelope’s palace, proved his ownership of the magic bow. Only Penelope still needs convincing that he is he, and all that will work for her is that this new guy will be able to identify the one thing he alone can know: the embroidery pattern on the marital bed she has kept fresh for him. He does.

“The opera ends with a duet by the reunited couple,” Ringer writes. “They sing a gentle minor-key tune with solo and overlapping lines that changes the emotional temperature from extroverted rapture to private, glowing tenderness. Long pent-up emotion seems to bring them to the verge of tears. Newly invigorated, she sings her own lyric: ‘Fly from our breasts, feelings of sadness,’ and now Ulisse sings his refrain with his own slight variant, ‘Si, si, si, core, si, si.’ The opera ends with a powerful affirmation in five bars of unison singing, ‘Si, si, si, core, si, si.’ Just those simple sounds, fading away; nothing more. Name another opera, if you can, that ends so enchantingly.” (I can, one: Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges.)

That final duet is included on the disc (with Christoph Prégardien as Ulysses); there is also a fair sampling of music from The Coronation of Poppea, which is on the L.A. Opera’s docket for next season, in a production from the same Netherlands Opera that sent us the Ulysses a few years back. Meanwhile, as I was saying, you can almost taste this extraordinary repertory in the remarkably vivid, informed — and, I can well imagine, dedicated — writing in this exceptionally valuable book.


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