‘Monteverdi 450’: Superlative Music, Gripping Theater

Hana Blažiková and Kangmin Justin Kim star in ‘L’incoronazione di Poppea’ throughout John Eliot Gardiner’s
globe-trotting ‘Monteverdi 450,’ which included Chicago performances. (Production photos by Michael Brosilow)
By Kyle MacMillan

CHICAGO — Three operas. Nine hours. More than 60 touring musicians and singers.

Monteverdi 450, which ran Oct. 12, 13, and 15 in the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, might not have the epic sweep of Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung, but it was nonetheless a towering undertaking by any measure. But more impressive than its scale was the superlative, arguably unsurpassable quality of these performances. Note for note, breath for breath, gesture for gesture, everything was in its place. Yes, it’s an over-used cliché, but this was in every way the experience of a lifetime.

John Eliot Gardiner is conductor and mastermind of the ‘Monteverdi 450’ project.
(Chris Christodoulou)

English conductor John Eliot Gardiner has been at the forefront of the early-music movement since he founded the Monteverdi Choir in 1964 and later the English Baroque Soloists and Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. As the name of his original vocal ensemble suggests, a central figure in his long musical career has been Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643). The composer did not invent opera, but his groundbreaking creations significantly defined the medium as we know it, and his operas are the oldest that continue to be produced regularly.

“Fifty years ago, Monteverdi epitomized for me all that was most exotic and alluring about Italian music of the early 17th century,” Gardiner wrote in a program note drawn from an August 2017 essay. “His music spoke to audiences so directly: it demanded their attention through its glorious palette of colors and the passionate utterance in which it was couched . . . I became hooked, much in the same way that many people (myself included) are drawn to the works of his contemporaries: Shakespeare or John Donne, Rubens or Caravaggio — all humanists in the fullest sense of the term.”

Tenor Krystian Adam, as Orfeo, grapples with Underworld forces.

To celebrate the 450th anniversary of this creative genius, Gardiner conceived Monteverdi 450, an unprecedented, seven-month odyssey to present Monteverdi’s three extant operas — L’Orfeo, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, and L’incoronazione di Poppea — across Europe and the United States. To conclude the project, he brought the tour to the Harris Theater and will take it finally Oct. 18-21 to New York’s Alice Tully Hall as part of the Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival.

Among the many extraordinary aspects of these performances was the utter lack of compromise. Gardiner employed hand-picked forces he knows well and rehearsed them on his timetable, so audiences got to hear these operas exactly as he wished them to be. Because he traveled with one troupe of soloists, they performed in repertory, some taking as many as six roles over the three days, a practice not often done in opera. This approach gave the audience a rare and welcome opportunity to experience multiple facets of these performers on succeeding days.

But perhaps most importantly, Monteverdi 450 represents a summation of all the experience and knowledge Gardiner has amassed over the past half-century. It was clear he knew exactly what he wanted, and as noted, there was a sense of meticulousness about every aspect of these performances, everything fitting neatly into its place. That said, there was nothing academic, mannered, or over-planned. Indeed, just the opposite was true. Gardiner made sure that every aspect pulsed with energy and immediacy.

Some costumes in ‘L’Orfeo’ seemed contemporary, others tilted toward the past.

From the English Baroque Soloists came committed, involved music-making by artists who clearly believe fervently in Gardiner’s vision and were utterly committed to these operas. These were superb period performances by musicians who are among the world’s finest exponents of their sometimes unfamiliar instruments of the past. Among the many joys of these operas was basking in their wonderfully earthy, unvarnished sound. Much the same could be said of the Monteverdi Choir, which served in varying sized contingents as the chorus for each of these operas, performing with equal enthusiasm.

To be clear, these were semi-staged productions with the orchestra onstage. No sets, no props, but simple yet effective lighting by designer Rick Fisher that helped mark time, set scenes, and establish moods. There were also costumes designed by Isabella Gardiner and Patricia Hofstede, and they were the only real drawback of these performances. They were an odd mix of dresses, smocks, sashes, vests, and other garb — some seeming contemporary, others tilting to the past. It was a hodgepodge of looks that only sowed confusion. In the end, it was easy to wonder if the production really needed costumes at all. But that was a minor complaint.

Gardiner created a modest yet quite workable staging for each production, along with co-director Elsa Rooke, using rudimentary blocking and basic choreography when dancing was needed. They divided the musicians into two groups onstage, each clustered around a harpsichord. The action took place on risers at the back in an open section between the two groups of musicians and along either side of the stage.

Penelope (Marianna Pizzolato) fights off her suitors in ‘Il ritorno d’Ulisse.’

Perhaps most significant was the close interaction of the characters. All the singers were top-flight actors, and with the help of Gardiner and Rooke, they did a wonderful job of listening and responding to each other. And when they were alone onstage singing to the audience, as often happens in these operas, they animated their performances with simple yet communicative movements, gestures, and facial expressions without overdoing it or mugging to ill effect.

Of the three productions, L’Orfeo was the most successful, in part because it is the most unified and well-integrated of Monteverdi’s operas, with festive ensemble scenes and the richest contrast of joy and sadness. In addition, it called on the largest orchestra (31 players here), and Monteverdi drew on the colors of his ensemble to enhance the drama, offsetting the bear-like embrace of the throaty chitarrones (or theorbos) with the airy recorders and regal brass. The music was a palpable, vital part of the production, a point Gardiner reinforced by lining the brass players along the back of the stage for their key fanfares and having sections of the orchestra stand as they were spotlighted in Monteverdi’s score.

The orchestra, onstage throughout, was choreographed into the performance.

More than the other two productions, there was some real directorial flair here, starting with the dual spine-tingling processions from out in the house that took the chorus onto the stage with the chitarrones in the lead. Other touches included singers serenading from a balcony in the hall and strategically arrayed backstage voices.

It would be impossible to over-praise Gardiner’s choice of singers for these operas, which were drawn from the best of Europe’s rich pool of period specialists. They understood the unique demands of Baroque performance, which meant singing with refined clarity, clean articulation, minimal vibrato, and appropriate restraint. There was no vocal showboating here; everything was in the service of the music and story. And befitting the repertory style of this presentation, singers who had major parts in one opera took minor parts in the next, often providing unexpectedly high-powered performances in the smaller roles. Baritone Furio Zanasi, for example, who took the title role in Ulisse, shone in the minor role of a soldier alongside tenor Robert Burt, who had a delightfully comical turn as Iro in Il ritorno.

Hana Blažiková, left, as ruthless Poppea, with Reginald Mobley as her nurse.

Many of these singers deserve note, but here are six who particularly stood out:

  • Soprano Hana Blažiková. The Czech singer, who deserves to be far better known, left the biggest impression of any of the soloists across the three operas. Her singing was infused with a vibrancy and freshness that was ceaselessly appealing. In L’Orfeo, she lit up the roles of La Musica and Euridice, with gentle-edged singing that embodied the word “lilting.” She came right back as Fortuna and the goddess Minerva in Il ritorno and then anchored Poppea with an alluring, multifaceted portrayal of the title character — the largest of all of her roles.
  • Baritone Furio Zanasi. This extraordinary Italian artist commands the stage with an understated yet magnetic presence. In the largest of his three roles as Ulisse, he managed to communicate the pathos and fatigue of this long-exiled leader and later potently summoned the character’s physical and moral power. Zanasi has all the vocal force he needs, but he was at his best in the intimate moments, when he embraced his characters’ most painful emotions and quietly yet forcefully conveyed them to the farthest reaches of the house.
  • Tenor Krystian Adam. With a light, agile voice that impresses from the top to the bottom of his range, Adam brings an earnest intensity and compelling physicality to his singing. He delivered an all-in performance as Orfeo, displaying a real affinity for Monteverdi as he conveyed the depths of this character’s grief and held the stage with his sense of storytelling. Though in a much smaller role, he was equally effective as Telemaco, Ulisse’s son, in Il ritorno.
  • Bass Gianluca Buratto. Like so many of these performers, Buratto grabbed attention with both his flawless singing and riveting stage presence. A terrific actor, he effortlessly shifted from Caronte, the menacing boatman of the river Styx, in L’Orfeo to a slimy royal suitor in Il ritorno to a wise if doomed philosopher in Poppea. Through it all, audiences got to revel in the technical bravura and stylistic assuredness of his enveloping, barrel-like voice.
  • Countertenor Kangmin Justin Kim as Nerone in ‘Poppea.’

    Countertenor Kangmin Justin Kim. Although he had a small yet important role in L’Orfeo as Speranza, he made his mark as Nerone, the emperor of Rome, in Poppea. With a wonderfully multi-dimensional voice that could convey venom as deftly as caresses, he embodied the seemingly conflicting sides of this complex character — both the crazed, tyrannical ruler and the tender, ardent lover.

  • Mezzo-soprano Lea Desandre. This young singer had just one role, the Messaggera, who conveys the devastating news of Euridice’s death in L’Orfeo, but she made the most of it. With a haunting gracefulness and floating lines suffused with grief and pain, Desandre poured out her character’s tale of woe.

Put simply, this is what we wish that all opera productions could be: glorious music-making and gripping theater. It was staggering to think that this music is more than 450 years old, yet in the hands of Gardiner and these performers it seemed utterly contemporary — vital and relevant, like all great art is and will always be.

Kyle MacMillan served as the classical-music critic for the Denver Post from 2000 through 2011. He is now a freelance journalist in Chicago, where he contributes regularly to the Chicago Sun-Times and Modern Luxury and writes for such national publications as the Wall Street Journal, Opera News, Chamber Music and Early Music America.