Picture, if you will, a medieval Italian countryside at dusk. It is the height of summer, the harvested wheat stands in sheaths, and the hum of insects fills the air. The light is gauzy with lingering heat and lengthening shadows.
Such is the scene created for the two Monteverdi pieces, ‘Lamento Della Ninfa’ and ‘Il Combattimento Di Tancredi e Clorinda’ drawn from Monteverdi’s 17th century Madrigals of War and Love. Staged by Constantine Costi and his artistic team for Paul Dyer’s Brandenburg Orchestra, the two songs are embedded in music by Falconieri and Trabaci, contextualizing the Monteverdi with lesser known Italian contemporary music, and showcasing the Theorbo and baroque guitar played by Brandenburg regular Tommie Andersson, with some unusually evocative and experimental percussion by Adam Cooper-Stanbury.
New Zealand soprano Natasha Wilson, at the helm of these intensely emotional narrative songs, is superbly partnered with Danish Bass-Baritone Jakob Bloch Jespersen, alongside American tenor Karim Sulayman and Sydney tenor Spencer Darby.
The Monteverdi pieces enact grief amidst anger, unrequited love caused by abandonment and combat; and Wilson’s bell-like voice sails confidently through the high seas of gutsy aggression toward ‘the foolish arrogance of our savage minds’ to the aching depths of ‘glorious sorrow’.
Together with Bach’s playful ‘Coffee Contata’ in the second half of the program, these are miniature operas, each with two dramatic characters sung by Wilson and Jespersen and a narrator sung by Sulayman. Together with the luscious costuming, clever sets and sur-titles, they add to the Brandenburg’s repertoire of experimental stagings, which have incorporated whirling dervishes, among other exotic enhancements in the recent past.
At times during the Monteverdi staging I was unconvinced by the dramatisation, particularly the sword fighters brandishing scaffolding pipes in combat as Wilson and Jespersen poured out their hearts above. The scrim, lighting and scaffolding were transfixing enough without this distraction.
The stage direction for the coffee cantata was more successful, given its origins in Leipzig’s Café Zimmerman, where a Collegium Musicum was run by Bach between 1729 and 1739; and the extras were more seamlessly incorporated into the setting. The contemporary café props worked well for an inner-city audience obsessed by espresso, and there were plenty of witty touches, such as the father smoking his head off while berating his daughter for her love of short blacks.
Costume designer Genevieve Graham deserves special mention for Wilson’s outfits, and the blood red cloth together with John Rayment’s lighting in Monteverdi’s ‘Combattimento’ was extraordinary. The fishnets and fur coat redolent of a Melbourne University student hanging out on Lygon St, were also perfect for what my companion aptly summed up as a charming divertimento. Nor can I pass over the joyful recorder playing by Melissa Farrow and Mikaela Oberg, effortlessly fulfilling the sublime potential of this easily dismissed instrument in the first movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto Number 4.
For an evening of refined sexiness, few surpass its namesake.
Enjoy Bittersweet Obsessions at the City Recital Hall, Angel Place Sydney and the Melbourne Recital Centre:
City Recital Hall
Friday 27 October, 7pm
Saturday 28 October, 7pm
Tuesday 31 October, 7pm
Wednesday 1 November, 7pm
Matinee: Saturday 28 October 2 pm
Melbourne Recital Centre
Saturday 4 November 7pm
Sunday 5 Novenber 5pm