Proms at … Cadogan Hall (2): A Barbara Strozzi celebration

And, it was with a ground bass – a descending four-note chaconne – that we
started, the delicate whispers of Monica Pustilnik’s archlute and Quito
Gato’s theorbo articulating the opening bars of Strozzi’s, ‘L’amante
segreto’, as the musicians of Cappella Mediterranea processed slowly onto
the Cadogan Hall stage. The texture gently expanded, rustling chords and
soft ornament filling out the hypnotic revolving circles of the bass line,
in anticipation of the singer’s lament. With the accompaniment still a pianissimo elaboration, Mariana Flores entered from the opposite
side of the Hall, slowly, with gravity, taking her place at the centre of
the ensemble, her figure poised but her head bowed, seemingly physically
burdened by the pain of unrequited love.

“Voglio morire”: I want to die. The opening line, derived from the bass and
recurring throughout the madrigal, was a wisp of sound, clear but gossamer,
a melancholic fall. Later Flores would reiterate this intent in more florid
fashion, her yearning deepened by the dissonant pungency of clashing
semitones and the darkness of director Leonardo GarcÌa AlarcÛn’s weighty
organ. The journey to such expressive peaks was a masterpiece of vocal and
textual expression – from both Flores and Strozzi. The melody is intensely
rhetorical, its curves and twists now fluid, then halting, and the
Argentinian soprano controlled the contour of the line with exquisite
subtlety. The long melismas quivered with feeling, then flowed in creative
outpourings of emotion in a quasi-improvisatory fashion; and this
improvisatory quality became more prominent with recorder player Roderigo
Calveyra’s elaborations which injected pace and passion when the
poet-singer finds new strength, rising from her frozen winter into a
greener spring. At times, the disturbance created by sudden shifts in tempo
and changes of metre gave way to the stillness of a monody which was
rapturously communicative.

This mesmerising opening set the tone for the recital which was notable for
its sustained intensity, deep sentiment and consummate musicianship.
Propelled similarly by a bass ostinato, Strozzi’s ‘Che si puÚ fare’ adds a
prominent and dark-coloured viola da gamba to the piquant dissonances of
harp (Marie Bournisien), archlute and guitar, and Margaux Blanchard’s low
countermelody engaged with the vocal line with fluency and eloquence,
matching the flexibility and inventiveness of Flores’ flowing line.
Countering the wistfulness of hopeless reflections – “Che si puÚ fare?”,
“Che si puÚ dire?” (What can anyone do?, What can anyone say?) – were
Calveyra’s inter-verse cornett songs, played with a wonderful fullness and
warmth that got inside one’s skin in the best possible way. But, despair
turned to rebelliousness and resolve at the close. Flores imbued her voice
with strength and a hint of flamboyance: the final cadence came suddenly,
with a parting flourish like a vocal stamp of the foot.

‘Sino all morte’ is a longer, free-flowing cantata from Strozzi’s Diporte di Euterpe (The Pleasures of Euterpe). Published
in 1659, its dedication to the future Doge Nicolo Sagredo described the
contents as ‘lingue dell’ Anima ed istrumente del core … come Sirene
entro mari di Gratie’ (language of the soul and instruments of the heart
… like Sirens among a sea of Graces). Operatic in scale and passion,
‘Sino alla morte’ reflects on love consummated, unrequited, denied and
destroyed, and Flores negotiated the sudden changes of mood and style, from
impassioned elaboration to controlled declamation as superbly as she
delivered the ever more complex fioritura, relishing its unpredictability.
Similarly, in ‘Lagrime mie’ she exploited every melodic angularity, piquant
chromaticism and fragmentation of the text to communicate the distress of
the poet-speaker whose beloved Lidia has been imprisoned by her father. The
sequences built a compelling dynamism, voice and bass intertwined
beautifully, and every ounce of the lament’s meaning and feeling was
brought forth with exquisite delicacy.

We also heard works by Strozzi’s younger Venetian compatriot, Antonia
Bembo, who left Italy for France. There she gained the patronage of King
Louis XIV who rewarded her with a pension which allowed her to stay in the
community of Notre Dame de Bonne Nouvelle before moving to what she called
a ‘holy refuge’ – the community of the Petite Union ChrÈtienne des Dames de
Saint Chaumond. A dedicatory letter to her royal patron introduces Bembo’s
collection of vocal pieces, Produzioni armoniche, a varied set of
pieces which were intended for both sacred and secular performance. At the
start of the aria ‘M’ingannasti in verit‡’, the harpsichord was restless
and agitated, burning with betrayal, and Flores’ vocal line seemed to turn
around and around on itself in bitterness. An elaborate, spirited recorder
interlude whipped up the fury of the second stanza, where the rapid
virtuosities flashed with fiery anger as the voice climbed ever higher.
“Brava!” cried one delighted audience member above the applause. Calveyra
displayed equal virtuosity in Bembo’s ‘Volgete altrove il guardo’ in which
the vocal line was transcribed for recorder, playing with uneffusive calm
but creating diverse colours, infectious energy and sunshine happiness at
the close.

Both Strozzi and Bembo were taught by Francesco Cavalli and the latter’s ‘E
vuol dunque Ciprigna’ allowed Flores to demonstrate her rhetorical skills,
as she flew through the dramatic recitative communicating the rich sounds
of the texts with precision and power, accompanied by unpredictable,
sometimes almost violent, textures and harmonies.

This was an outstanding demonstration of the expressive union of words and
music achieved by Strozzi and her contemporaries. Might Cappella
Mediterranea have occasionally loosened the rhythmic strings a little and
found rather more freedom to balance the earnestness? Might Flores have
sought some of the irony in Strozzi’s texts, to counter the passion with a
little playfulness? Perhaps. But, Flores sang with a boldness that was
surely the equal of Strozzi’s own. And, we certainly experienced the ‘language
of the soul and instruments of the heart’.

Claire Seymour

Proms at … Cadogan Hall 2: A Celebration of Barbara Strozzi

Mariana Flores (soprano), Leonardo GarcÌa AlarcÛn
(harpsichord/organ/director), Cappella Mediterranea

Barbara Strozzi – ‘L’amante segreto’, Antonia Bembo – Produzioni armoniche: ‘M’ingannasti in verit‡’, Strozzi – ‘Che si
puÚ fare’, Bembo – Produzioni armoniche: ‘Volgete altrove il
guardo’, Strozzi – ‘Sino alla morte’, Francesco Cavalli – Ercole amante: ‘E vuol dunque Ciprigna’, Strozzi –
‘Lagrime mie’

Cadogan Hall, London; Monday 29th July 2019.

product_title=Proms at … Cadogan Hall (2): Cappella Mediterranea and Mariana Flores
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Mariana Flores

Photo credit: Jean-Baptiste Millot