Sunday 4 November 2012

Florentine Intermedi of 1589 at BREMF

Florentine Intermedi, Set design for 3rd Intermedio from 1589
Original set design for the 3rd
Intermedio in 1589
In 16th century Italy, the arts were very much central to a ruler's image and rulers used the arts not just for enjoyment but to make political statements, sometimes grand ones. In 1589 when Ferdinando de'Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, married Christine of Lorriane, grand daughter of Catherine de'Medici, Queen Mother of France, a grand political statement was needed. Two years earlier Ferdinando's elder brother and his wife had died, rumoured to be poisoned by Ferdinando, who had promptly traded his cardinal's hat for the Grand Duchy. So measures needed to be taken to emphasise the grandeur and solidity of Ferdinando's rule; what was needed was a grand theatrical event. In the Uffizi Theatre (a grand hall designed specifically for theatrical entertainments), there was mounted a play, Girolamo Bargagli's La Pellegrina and in between each act of the play there was an intermezzo. These intermezzi (or Intermedi) were common at the time, lighter entertainment between the acts of theatrical drama, sometimes quite short, just a solo or two. Most were ephemeral and have been lost. But for Ferdinando and Catherine, no expense was spared. The talents of Florence were drawn together to create them. These Intermedi were not opera, and were not proto-opera but another form entirely. But what fascinates is us is that many of those involved went on to create the first operas. Rather enterprisingly, Brighton Early Music Festival decided to crown its own 10th anniversary celebrations with two staged performances of the Florentine Intermedi of 1589, one performance at 5pm and one at 9pm on Saturday 3 November. We were lucky enough to see the second performance.

Florentine Intermedi, Set design for 4th Intermedio from 1589
Set design for 4th Intermedio from 1589

Those involved include both Caccini and Peri (who would write the music to the first operas) and Striggio (who wrote the words to many of the first operas). But Intermedi were not intended as drama per se, they were glorious theatrical events. In the programme notes Hugh Ketye describes them as akin to big production numbers in modern musicals.

After the premiere, the works were so popular that they had to be repeated and Ferdinando ordered the publication of the music. Which means that we know what went on and can reproduce it. A huge number of instrumentalists and musicians were involved in the original production and BREMF probably only used a fraction of them, but it was still impressive. The performance took place in St. Bartholomew's Church, a huge hall-like space. The setting was simple, a gantry-like proscenium arch with a stage behind which a drop  upon which projections were played, but which could turn transparent so we could see singers behind. Light played an enormous part, both on the backdrop and on the walls of the church itself. The singers used music, but moved around.

The two choirs involved were both voluntary groups, the BREMF Consort of Voices (director Deborah Roberts) and the Renaissance Singers (director David Allinson). The soloists were Katy Hill, Emily Gadd, Catherine King, Lucy Ballard, Mark Tucker, William Knight, Thomas Herford and Robert MacDonald. Plus a renaissance orchestra made up of members of the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensembe, the Monterverdi String Band, Chordophony Lute Ensemble plus various other individual players, amounting to around 2 dozen in all. The original Intermedi were in fact an important stepping stone in the creation of the modern orchestra.

There are siz Intermedi, each with its own plot, all roughly about the power of music. But the drama, such as it is, does not develop in the way it does in opera, you can have protagonists sung by ensembles of voices. The participation of madrigalist Luca Marenzio in writing much of the music ensured that there was a lot of madrigal-like writing. Like everything else in the Intermedi, the music was just as much a collaboration. Luca Marenzio and Cristofano Malvezzi contributed much and Malvezzi was the overall organiser and it was he who was responsible for publishing the music. Other composers contributed, with single arias from Giulio Caccini and Giacopo Peri. The overall form of each Intermedio seem to roughly be to have a single major aria in the piece, with the rest being ensemble. So there was a lot for the choirs to do and the soloists also sang together as a form of semi-chorus.

The summary of what happened in each Intermedio was projected into the drop at the start, which was helpful as the darkness prevented us from reading the excellently comprehensive programmes. The first Intermedio depicted Harmony descending to earth accompanied by the Sirens, the Fates and the Planets to sing together to celebrate the royal couple. So cue a fabulous soprano aria for Harmony (by Antonio Archilei or Emilio de Cavalieri) followed by extensive choral work. All accompanied by the final strand in the staging, Zu Aerial Dance (Hazel Maddocks, Lindsey Butcher and Naomis Giffen) who hung from the top of the proscenium and danced in the air, bringing a suitable element of astonishment to the production.

Intermedio 2 was a singing contest, with two choirs (incarnated by the BREMF Consort and the Renaissance Singers) judged by the Muses (the soloists singing as a consort). This entire Intermedio is by Marenzio, a glorious sequence of music for multiple vocal ensembles. The staging included an element of dramatic verisimilitude with the different choirs vying for each other which created a degree of amusement that was not, I think, helpful to the music.

Intermedio 3 was the battle between Apollo and the Serpent. I could have done with out the running and screaming from members of the choir as the serpent approached. Incarnated by one of the aerial dancers, the serpent was stylish rather than scary but once Apollo descended (another aerial dancer) and the two fought, the results were mesmerising.

For Intermedio 4 we opened with a sorceress (another superb soprano solo, this time by Caccini) asking the spirits to say when Jove will send his blessings to earth. They say that a golden age is beginning, cue a rapid scene change to hell were the demons lament that their power is gone. The depiction of the demons in the instrumental intermezzo by Giaches de Wert was frankly a bit hammy, but when they started singing all was forgiven.

Intermedio 5 opens with Amphitrite (another stunning soprano solo) arising from the sea accompanied by Sea Nymphs. Then we see a boat, where the poet Arion is threatened by the crew, he sings a lament then throws himself off the boat (the one example of real dramatic action in the Intermedi.) The crew celebrates, but he is saved by dolphins. Mark Tucker sang Arion's lament, from the pulpit. A stunning piece, it was Giacopo Peri's contribution, and Peri was a notable singer himself. His aria involves the use of a double echo to entrancing effect. Tucker's performance was suitably stunning.

Finally, we had Apollo and Bacchus descending with the gift of rhythm and harmony, cue two of the aerial dancers abseiling down the walls of the church, dancing all the way - astonishing. Plus a third on a swing, displaying all the gifts of grace and rhythm. Here I must also commend the fourth (unnamed) partner in Zu Aerial Dance, a young man who acted as anchor, attached to one of the ropes and created the swings leaps and jumps by simply running up and down the sides of the gantry with the end of the rope attached to him, with brilliant split second timing.

Deborah Roberts and David Allinson shared the conducting honours, which inevitably probably involved much  traffic policeman work. Both did so admirably but the constant moving between one conductor and another seemed a bit laboured.

Just the costume bill for the original Intermedi (all singers and many instrumentalists were costumed, on stage, for each Intermedio) would be beyond the entire budget of most modern organisations so if we are going to see this wonderful music enlivened on stage, then imagination needs to be applied. Deborah Roberts and BREMF have applied that imagination and come up with something suitably astonishing. It has to be admitted that not everything worked perfectly, some elements of the staging were a bit hammy, and once the novelty of the aerial dancers wore off you were aware of their physical limitations on ropes in the air. But this was combined with some superb performances and the whole was certainly greater than the sum of its parts.

The soprano soloists got the lions share of the solos (Emily Gadd sang the short solo Dulcissime sirene in Intermedio 1 and the main soprano soloists were Katy Hill and Catherine King); all were quite stunning, technically bravura and beautifully expressive, as was Mark Tucker. All the soloists hard working and admirably supportive in the other movements. The two choirs worked like Trojans, there was a lot for them to sing; the performance lasted 110 minutes (including pauses) and a lot of this was singing. They also had to move and to act. The results, musically, were evocatively involving. There were one or two moments where entries seemed fuzzy, but then neither the acoustic nor the lighting was probably helpful.

The instrumentalists were quite superb, again there was a lot of music for them to play. We got some amazingly varied textures. I'm not sure I picked up on the lirone (a bass member of the lira family), but the regal and the crumhorns were certainly adding their distinctive timbre to moments.

The seats at St Bartholomew's Church are not the most comfortable, but it was worth the pain for such an all encompassing theatrical experience. In 1589, the creators of the Intermedi would have been concerned that their presentations combined all the civilised arts one single, great event; the audience then would have been relatively small. St. Bartholomew's Church was packed, all highly appreciative of this imaginative modern re-creation.

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