‘Celebrating Women Baroque Composers’: Roberta Invernizzi at Wigmore Hall

Early developments in print technology reveal much about women’s involvement in musical life and composition in the Renaissance and early Baroque.  The earliest extant published music by a woman is a volume of madrigals by Maddelana Casulana, which the Venetian printer Girolamo Scotto issued in 1568.  A second book followed in 1570, and in the early seventeenth century the music of both Francesca Caccini and Barbara Strozzi was printed.  This concert celebrated the achievements of some of these early female pioneers.

When I last heard Roberta Invernizzi perform at Wigmore Hall, in 2018, the soprano was accompanied by lutenists Craig Marchitelli and Franco Pavan, and viola da gamba player Rodney Prada, and her programme included some of the ‘big hitters’ of the early Baroque – Caccini, Monteverdi – but also rarer items by Merula and Rossi.  Franco Pavan was again one of the accompanying musicians here, and there was more Caccini too, though not Giulio – singer, composer and author of Le nuova musiche (1602) – rather, his younger daughter, Settimia (c.1591-1660), less well known that her elder sibling, Francesca, but an esteemed singer and composer in her day.  The roll call of donne barroche included Barbara Strozzi (1619-77), Isabella Leonarda (1620-1704) and Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (1665-1729).

Invernizzi proved the perfect singer, and ‘performer’, to interpret and communicate this music.  Her technique is as rock solid as her phrasing and expression is flexible.  Her soprano glows and has a lovely grace, but it can burn and fizzle too, as she mines the expressive details of the text and brings both characters and narratives to life, with dramatic and emotive immediacy.  She and the six instrumentalists were in persuasive accord.

The music of Barbara Strozzi was the backbone of the recital.  Born in Venice, Strozzi was the adopted (but probably natural) daughter of Giulio Strozzie, poet, librettist and founder of the Accademia degli Unisoni – a musical auxiliary to the Incogniti, the epicentre of contemporary Venetian debate about philosophy and the arts.  She studied with Francesco Cavalli and her first published collection comprised madrigal settings of texts by her father.  Seven more volumes of works for soprano and continuo (often with stringed instruments too) followed, presenting music which is varied in sentiment and style, and characterised by the powerful, self-revealing expression of the songs’ protagonists.

Invernizzi focused on Diporti di Eurterpe, Strozzi’s Op.7 (published in 1659), opening her programme with ‘Lagrime mie’ (My tears) and immediately capturing the fraught, questioning tone of the lament which was and is Strozzi’s most famous work – and one which represents the composer’s engagement with an aesthetic discussion among the Unisoni as to whether emotion is best expression by tears or song.  Invernizzi shaped and shaded her voice to the text, the colour of her soprano also responding to harmonic shifts and keening, chromatic gestures of grief.  Supported by cellist Alberto Guerrero’s strong, vivid bass line, she had freedom to embrace the rhetorical ebbs and flows, sometimes gentle, sometimes fierce.  The delicacy of the theorbo and harp interlude before the final question – “Lagrime mie, à che vi trattente?” (Tears, why do you hold back?) – prepared for the closing mood of despairing helplessness.

In ‘Tradimento’ (Betrayal), Invernizzi was alert to every emotive nuance of the text.  There was passion, fury and wit in this accusatory song of biting resentment, with its sinewy shift to a triple meter and throw-away gesture of defiance at the close.  As Rossella Croce’s violin interplayed expressively with the descending chromatic bass line that opens ‘Sino alla morte’ (Until death), the voice sank low, resonating with a purposeful desire to defy time.  The performers flexibly journeyed through the episodes of contrasting mood and instrumentation, Invernizzi gradually building the intensity towards the agile outbursts, “Può la fortuna,/ Trarmi lontano” (Let fortune carry me afar), and culminating with bracing exuberance: “Io so, ch’alle faville degl’amanti,/ Tutti I mari alla fin non son bastanti” (I know that all the oceans of the world are not equal to the sparks that fly between lovers).  ‘Mi far rider la Speranza’ (Hope makes me laugh) was as light as air, and sparkled with virtuosic brio.

According to Severo Bonini, a Florentine composer, organist and writer on music, Settimia Caccini established ‘an immortal reputation’, having ‘mastered to perfection the art of singing’.  She was taught to sing and compose by Giulio and later worked for the Medicis and Gonzagas, in the courts of Florence, Mantua, Lucca and Parma.  She did not publish any music during her lifetime and this probably accounts for her neglect by scholars, in comparison with her sister, Francesco.  But, there are eight extant works, all strophic arias.  ‘Due luci ridenti’ (Two laughing eyes) revealed varied instrumental colour and a fluid vocal line which Invernizzi delivered with relaxed ease.  The lack of melodic elaboration in ‘Si miei tormenti’ (If she will ease my suffering), and the touching introduction for harp and theorbo, perfectly captured the spirit of introspective distress; here, Invernizzi’s ability to subtly alter the colour and volume of repeated notes – which perhaps intimate the stony heart of the unresponsive beloved – was both impressive and moving.

The programme included instrumental music too.  Isabella Leonarda was born into a prominent Novarese family, entered an Ursuline convent, the Collegio di S Orsola, in 1636 and remained there the rest of her life.  But, it should not be thought that this meant a life of confinement.  The nuns were free to venture beyond the convent walls – and were freed, too, from the responsibilities and restrictions of domestic married life – and the convent itself was a vibrant community in which musical and intellectual pursuits were encouraged.  Leonarda wrote about 200 compositions and published twenty volumes of music.  Her Op.16, printed in Bologna in 1683, contains instrumental sonatas for soloists and ensembles.  The Sonata a tre Op.16 No.5 brought two violins (Croce and Maura Lopes Ferreira), harp (Flora Papadopoulos), cello (Guerrero) and, a little later, two theorbos (Franco Pavan and Gabriele Paloma) together in both delicacy and robustness, contrasting sweetness, gruffness and vitality.  Similarly flexible of tempo, meter, and in this case timbre, the Sonata a più strumenti Op.16 No.7 showcased each instrument in turn, with lightness and charm.

I was lucky to hear the UK premiere of Élisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre’s tragédie lyrique, Céphale et Procris, at the Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone in February this year, performed by Ensemble OrQuesta.  It was originally staged in Paris on 17th March 1694 – the first work by a female composer to be performed at the at the Académie Royale de Musique.  We heard the Passacaille, in which different combinations of instruments engaged in vivid rhythmic dialogues.

Invernizzi closed her programme with Strozzi’s ‘Hor che Apollo’ (Now that Apollo), a thirteen-minute serenata for soprano, two violins and basso continuo from the composer’s Op.8 collection (published 1664).  The poet-speaker’s lonely reflections on his sleeping lover, Phyllis, were beautifully echoed in the instrumental ritornelli but the mood of introspection was rudely and dramatically interrupted by the recognition of Phyllis’s scorn, to be followed by a slow aria of dejected resignation.  The tender placing of the two violins’ phrases injected a telling pathos, as Invernizzi skilfully transitioned from forceful fidelity to a fragile farewell imbued with futility. 

The performers satisfied the delighted Wigmore Hall audience with a spontaneous, unannounced encore – presumably further evidence of the expressive virtuosity of the donne barroche.

Claire Seymour

Roberta Invernizzi (soprano), Franco Pavan (theorbo), Gabriele Palomba (theorbo), Flora Papadopoulos (harp), Mauro Lopes Ferreira (violin), Rossella Croce (violin), Alberto Guerrero (cello)

Barbara Strozzi – ‘Lagrime mie’, ‘Tradimento’ from Diporti di Euterpe Op.7; Isabella Leonarda – Sonata a tre Op.16 No.5; Settimia Caccini – ‘Due luci ridenti’, ‘Si miei tormenti’; Isabella Leonarda –Sonata a più strumenti Op.16 No.7; Barbara Strozzi – ‘Sino alla morte’ from Diporti di Euterpe Op.7; Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre – Passacaille from Céphale et Procris; Barbara Strozzi – ‘Mi fa rider la Speranza’ from Diporti di Euterpe Op.7, ‘Hor che Apollo’.

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 11th September 2023.