The remarkable journey of Claudio Cavina and La Venexiana through and with the music of Claudio Monteverdi... which, of course, has taken in along its way the madrigals, L’Orfeo, L’incoronazione di Poppea, the Selva morale e spirituale and the ensemble’s own modern and popular ‘twist’ on the Cremonese genius in ’Round M – now comes to rest on Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, the penultimate surviving dramatic work by Monteverdi, which was given its first performance in the Venice Carnival of 1640. Along the way, Claudio Cavina has developed a ‘sixth sense’ for recognizing and interpreting Monteverdi’s style and the result, in this new recording made in Mondovì in Italy, captures perfectly the spirit of the fledgling Venetian operatic world which Monteverdi was helping to encourage. Cavina supports the notion that not all of Ulisse may have been written by Monteverdi yet we are still left with a convincing demonstration of that composer’s dramatic skill and imagination – the more so when singers such as Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani (second photograph) as Ulysses and Josè Maria La Monaco as Penelope (third photograph)are representing the forces of constancy and virtue from this Homeric story. With Claudio Cavina having also recorded a later Venetian opera for Glossa in Francesco Cavalli’s Artemisia, this is an ideal time to speak to the conductor (but who also takes a singing role as Human Frailty in Ulisse) about his views on Monteverdi’s great musical tale from La Serenissima.
Q: How influential was Monteverdi in the development of opera in Venice during the 1640s and how did he relate in dramatic music to younger composers, such as Cavalli?
A: The power of Monteverdi’s influence lay in his innovations and the important artistic experiences for which he had been responsible whilst living and working in Mantua. When he arrived in Venice in 1613, now in his mid-40s, he found a very different musical climate there, and he consequently set out to adapt both his style and his general musical conception. Whereas, in Mantua there had not been a theatre as such (the first performance of L’Orfeo took place at the ducal palace) and musical productions were designed only for the Duke of Mantua – Vincenzo Gonzaga – and the nobility, in Venice Monteverdi encountered the new concept of public music. Francesco Cavalli sung in the choir of the cappella of Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice before going on to become a colleague of Monteverdi’s there, but as far as the world of the theatre was concerned I think that the younger composer proved to be more reactive than the older one. If it is the case that L’incoronazione di Poppea was not really composed in its entirety by Monteverdi (and, in my opinion, the same is also the case with Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria), this is evidence that Monteverdi was not one of the most important reference figures for Venetian opera as he had proved to be in the field of the sacred repertory.
Q: You mention that there are question marks over Monteverdi not providing all the music for Ulisse. Why might this have happened? How evident is all this from the score?
A: I know that the modern musicology asserts that the music for Ulisse was written in its totality by Monteverdi, but as far as I am concerned, I do not think that this was the case. Having now performed and/or recorded all of Monteverdi’s music, I do not find in Ulisse the real underlying characteristics of his genius. It is true that on some pages of the score his ‘musical hand’ is very evident, but in several places we find resolutions which are too simplistic for Monteverdi and also cadenzas which are also just so simple and naïve. In his own time Monteverdi was a ‘revolutionary’ (I am thinking here of works or collections such as Il quarto libro de madrigali, L’Orfeo, the Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, or the Lamento della Ninfa) and I do not think that it is possible that he could have written in this old and simple style that one finds in places in Ulisse.
Q: Do you sense in Ulisse an evolution in Monteverdi’s musical thinking – since the times of L’Orfeo?
A: As I mentioned previously, the musical conception of Monteverdi in Mantua was very different to that in Venice, to the point that I can say that it was ‘simpler’ in Venice; to that end L’Orfeo was a real testimony of the revolutionary nature of Monteverdi. And in Ulisse I do not find any innovations or, indeed, any coups de théâtre. The recitativos are all very simple, and the instruments, such as the violins, are used very sparingly. The drama, as such, is only to be found in a few areas, not in the whole opera as was the case with L’Orfeo. Rather than an evolution, I would say that in Ulisse we see an ‘involution’ in the musical style and in the musical solution (but, as I have said, much of the music was not, in my opinion, by Monteverdi).
Q: In Ulisse which dramatic moments clearly bear the hallmark of Monteverdi?
A: We should remember that at the time of the first performance of Ulisse, all audiences would have known the story of Ulysses or, furthermore, the events involving the Cyclops Polyphemus or the madness of the suitors of Penelope, the Proci. In the score we have some pages where it is possible to admire the ‘great’ Monteverdi and his style. I am thinking here particularly of Penelope’s opening scene (where she cries out with such a big human drama, ‘Torna, deh torna Ulisse!’) or when Ulysses is waking up on the beach (‘Dormo ancora... o son desto!’) or in the scene of the bow (‘Ecco l’arco d’Ulisse’). At all such points, Monteverdi shows himself as the master of affetti, as a composer who knows his own style and it is in such places in Ulisse that one can locate the magic of his art. Furthermore, in each concertato section Monteverdi remains an incomparable master.
Q: For your recording of Ulisse – as with your performances – you have chosen a small continuo team. Why have you preferred this to a larger contingent of instruments and colours?
A: What we have done in practice is to use the exact continuo forces which were used in the opera houses in Venice in this period. Thus, we have employed theorbos, a harp and a harpsichord. No more than such instruments were also to be used in the operas of Francesco Cavalli in Venice at the time. In order to have an ability to change colours at this time it was not necessary to have a big continuo; everything depended on the declamation and the changing about of the roles.
MARK WIGGINS© 2012 Glossa Music / Note 1 Music