Thursday 9 November 2023

Celebrating 17th-century Venice as a place of tolerance for gay artists - Infinite Refrain: Music of Love's Refuge

Infinite Refrain: Music of Love's Refuge: Monteverdi, Cavalli, Boretti, Melani, Castrovillari; Randall Scotting, Jorge Navarro Colorado, Academy of Ancient Music;
Infinite Refrain: Music of Love's Refuge: Monteverdi, Cavalli, Boretti, Melani, Castrovillari; Randall Scotting, Jorge Navarro Colorado, Academy of Ancient Music, Laurence Cummings; Signum Classics
Reviewed 3 November 2023

A wonderful album that celebrates Venice as a place of tolerance for gay artists in the 17th century, with music by Monteverdi and Cavalli, alongside modern-day premieres by the little-known composers Boretti, Melani, and Castrovillari

During the 17th and 18th centuries, Venice had a reputation, particularly during the Carnival, where people could wander around masked and all sorts of activities could take place. Exciting things that would not be possible elsewhere. Tourists flocked, and entertainment for them stretched from the lucrative trade of prostitutes right through to the opera. It was fun for young heterosexual men, of course, women were far more available, but it was even bigger a draw for gay men.

Thanks to disputes between the Venetian authorities and the church, there was greater separation between church and state in the city, and the Venetian church was robustly independent. The result was a place where gay men could go and be far more open than anywhere else in Europe. These attitudes were reflected in the opera, where there were numerous coded references to gay and bisexual relationships in operas full of masks, cross-dressing, and sexual ambiguity.

This new disc, Infinite Refrain from Signum Classics is very much a passion project for the two singers, American countertenor Randall Scotting [see my 2022 interview with Randall] and UK-trained Spanish tenor Jorge Navarro Colorado,. They are joined by the Academy of Ancient Music, conductor Laurence Cummings for programme of 17th century arias and duets all with a Venetian link. But more than that, the programme leans into the idea of two men, two gay men, singing love duets and love-lorn arias. It can be read as a tale of two men in love (the lively photography, with the two singers holding flowers, encourages this) and the disc culminates in the ravishing duet, 'Pur ti miro, pur ti godo' which concludes Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea.

The programme opens with Monteverdi's duet, Vorrei baciarti from his Settimo libro de madrigali and also from that volume come the duets Perchè fuggi, Soave libertate, and Tornate, o cari baci, plus the two solo Lettere Amorose. There are arias by Cavalli, Misero, così va from Eliogabolo, and Stradella, two arias from Il Trespo Tutole. Plus by composers not so well known, Jacopo Melani, Daniele da Castrovillari and Giovanni Antonio Boretti.

The duet Se per tè lieto mi lice from Boretti's Ercole in Tebe sees the mythic lovers Hercules and Theseus pledge their devotion to each other while escaping Hades hand-in-hand! Cavalli's last opera, Eliogabolo features a hero who dressed and acted as woman, though this was replaced at short notice by a version in which the notoriously dissolute Roman emperor repents in the final scene. Here, though, we do not hear from the title role but from Eliogabolo's successor, Alessandro lamenting the fickleness of love.

There are instrumental items to puncture the programme of duets and arias, with items by Tarquino Merula, Girolamo Frescobaldi, and Giovanni Legrenzi.

As I discovered when I chatted to Randall Scotting last year, he is as much at home doing research in libraries as in the concert hall, and the programme concept, repertoire selections, performing editions, and English translations are all his.

Randall Scotting, Jorge Navarro Colorado (Photo: Joel Benjamin)
Randall Scotting, Jorge Navarro Colorado (Photo: Joel Benjamin)

The programme engages on multiple levels. At the most basic, it is a wonderfully sung account of wonderful music. Both singers have a lovely flexibility and naturalness in the many moments of quasi parlando where words and music intertwine. Diction is excellent, but there are moments of bravura too. The two men have contrasting but complementary voices so that the disc has an attractive alternation of timbres and textures whilst in the duets the two balance and complement.

But once one has enjoyed the performances, you turn to the words and the contexts and realise that this is a programme about the twists and turns of love. It could easily be a dramatic programme, and even in the solo numbers, the sense of the context, the interaction between two men is present. And that takes you to the final level where this isn't just a programme of erotic music, but explicitly celebrates the freedom that gay men found in 17th century Venice. In this it is refreshing, as these sentiments are often masked in classical performances except where the composer is contemporary and is being explicit.

Throughout, the two singers are wonderfully supported by Cummings and the Academy of Ancient Music. Most of this is not orchestral music as we know it, but concerted music where individual agency is strong so that Scotting and Navarro Colorado are supported by a constellation of fine soloists in concert.

Infinite Refrain: Music of Love's Refuge
1. Vorrei baciarti - Claudio Monteverdi (Venice 1619) duet
2. Se i languidi miei sguardi - Monteverdi (Venice 1619) Randall Scotting
3. Da torbido nembo - Jacopo Melani (Florence 1661) Jorge Navarro Colorado
4. Perchè fuggi - Monteverdi (Venice 1619) duet
5. Ballo detto Pollicio - Tarquinio Merula (Venice 1637) instrumental
6. Dove, m’ascondo - Daniele da Castrovillari (Venice 1662) Randall Scotting
7. Soave libertate - Monteverdi (Venice 1619) duet
8. Io resto solo?… Misero, così va - Francesco Cavalli (Venice 1667) Jorge Navarro Colorado
9. Toccata Quarta - Girolamo Frescobaldi (Rome 1615) Laurence Cummings
10. Tornate, o cari baci - Monteverdi (Venice 1619) duet
11. Crudo Amor - Giovanni Antonio Boretti (Venice 1670) Jorge Navarro Colorado
12. Oh quanti soli… Ahimè - Alessandro Stradella (Genoa 1679) Randall Scotting
13. Se pur destina e vole - Monteverdi (Venice 1619) Jorge Navarro Colorado
14. Ballo del Granduca - Giovanni Legrenzi(Venice 1691) instrumental
15. Entro l’orrida mole… Se per tè - G.A. Boretti (Venice 1670) duet
16. Con che soavità - Monteverdi (Venice 1619) Randall Scotting
17. Pur ti miro, pur ti good -Monteverdi/ Francesco Sacrati (Venice 1643) duet
Randall Scotting (countertenor)
Jorge Navarro Colorado (tenor)
Academy of Ancient Music
Laurence Cummings
Recorded 31 October - 2 November, St Augustine’s Kilburn, London

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