Songs of love and nibbles
Claudio Monteverdi: The full Monteverdi
Anna Crookes (soprano), Carys Lane (soprano), Clare Wilkinson (mezzo-soprano), Nicholas Mulroy (tenor), Matthew Brook (baritone), Giles Underwood (bass)
Robert Hollingworth (director), John La Bouchardière (stage director)
The Cambridge Summer Music Festival began with a stop by I Fagiolini on their tour of music festivals. British summer music festivals are becoming something of a travelling circus, but residents of festival cities can be grateful that they no longer need to schlepp to Edinburgh to see inventive small-scale productions and new works during the summer. The Cambridge Festival has a fair mix of local artists and venue-specific events, notably those that involve the fine organs in many college chapels, but it also has fairly big names and less specialized entertainment, targeting summer visitors as well as the local musical community.
I Fagiolini are known for their adventurous performances of seventeenth-century Venetian music-theatre. They tend to specialize in funny stuff, but The Full Monteverdi, in spite of a soapy looking premise, was deeply serious in intent, a full enactment of the emotional and formal content of a group of Monteverdi's madrigals about love. The presentation was engaging: the audience sat at tables as if in a restaurant and were served with food and wine; after about half an hour, the singers, sitting among the audience, each with an actor partner, began to sing and act out the drama of the words and music, storming off and making up with hugs and kisses. It was could have been like overhearing an extended lovers' tiff in a restaurant on Valentine's day, but the beauty of the music and the intensity of the performances soon overcame any embarrassment.
The six couples acted out the music in slightly different ways, sometimes reflecting contrasts in the musical lines, sometimes perhaps maintaining dramatic interest and occasionally apparently removing a singer not needed for the next item with a stormy exit in tears. Much of the detail of the words and word setting was lost in the slightly boomy church, though it added allure to the generally fine voices, and the translation in the programme didn't add much to an understanding of what was going on. But the generalities of form and feeling were clear enough, and the whole performance made for a rewarding hour. If it at first felt strange sharing a table with strangers in a church and eating brie and crackers, it turned out to be a delightful setting in which to experience Monteverdi's amazing grasp of humanity.