L’Orfeo | Concerto ItalianoMa cosa vuoi di più! What more do you want?

Since 1984 the group of singers and instrumentalists Concerto Italiano have dedicated themselves to the performance of early baroque Italian music, above all that of Monteverdi. Even when they started, they began to brush the cobwebs off the performance style of the then leading exponents of Monteverdi madrigals, for example The Consort of Musicke with the likes of Emma Kirkby. Three decades of immersion in the particular performance idioms of the early 17th century have given them an authenticity which sounds completely natural, indeed which convinces from the very outset that this is the only way that Monteverdi’s music can reveal all of its riches.

Monteverdi said: Prima le parole, poi la musica. First the words, then the music. His care when setting words to music is unequalled in Italian, as for example Purcell and Britten’s is in English. Concerto Italiano have built themselves round singers and singing, so that even the instruments seem to play in Italian. Gorgie, a form of ornamentation approached diffidently and even incredulously by non-Italian performers, which consists in the very rapid repetition of a single note, and instrumental and vocal roulades derived from treatises like that of Della Casa which seem mind-blowingly complex in terms of 21st century vocal technique, were integrated so completely into their performance that both seemed just what the music needed to express itself in all its Italian ardour.

Let me list the orchestra. Monteverdi’s score only mentions, if my memory serves me, strings and continuo. In addition, Concerto Italiano included end-blown flutes, trumpets, cornetti, sackbuts, theorbos, harp (well, where would Orpheus be without a harp?), harpsichord, organ, and various percussion. In the first half of the concert, the variety of sonorities was really exciting, and gave the performance, already vibrant, a palette of colours worthy of the Italian, or for that matter the Adelaide, sunshine. This increased the variety explicit in the score, provided by the great number of ensembles for up to five voices. (Did opera really have to wait for Mozart to do this again?) In the second half the five sackbuts described the vast hollowness of the infernal realms.

They used a temperament which was unfamiliar to me, being neither equal temperament nor any of the later Baroque temperaments such as Kirnberger or Werckmeister, apparently called Microtonica, which resulted in Monteverdi’s dissonances becoming even more thrillingly intense.

Yet with all that dedication came a breezy Mediterranean informality. Singers wandered onto the stage, the women in outfits worthy of Prada, the men though in tie-less suits, and sang their multiple roles, then walked off (in the case of the women to change into yet another tastefully gorgeous outfit), or found a place among the orchestra to sing their next passage in front of the sackbuts. Some of them sometimes brought their scores on. After singing the most virtuosic, extreme, supplicating music when Orfeo goes into Hades, Valerio Contaldo would relax, simply allowing others the expressive limelight. After her heartfelt, exquisite Messenger’s speech, Francesca Cassinari, would do the same. The impression from all this was that this was simply how they lived, and by extension, how Italians live.

Throughout the performance the director, Rinaldo Alessandrini, was in complete control, no sooner bringing one passage to its careful cadence than launching into the next with ever renewed passion. Like all of the performers tonight, especially having prepared the edition, he knows the music backwards. More: like all of them, he lives the music.

This was as inspiring a concert as you are ever likely to hear. We have in Australia some absolutely first-rate baroque ensembles – I think especially of Pinchgut Opera in Sydney. But even by their standards, tonight’s concert was a revelation. What more do you want?

Concerto Italiano presents

Director Rinaldo Alessandrini

Venue: Adelaide Town Hall, 128 King William Street SA
Dates: 7 March 2017
Tickets: $149 – $30
Bookings: BASS 131 246 | adelaidefestival.com.au

Part of the 2017 Adelaide Festival