Music, in its performed physicality, is direct; music, in its stylization, introduces distance. Few composers better exploited that paradox than Claudio Monteverdi, the focus of Aston Magna’s Thursday concert. The music didn’t so much reproduce the anguish and despair of its subject matter as effectively substitute a compelling cut-and-thrust of imagery and musical illustration.
The dominant metaphor was love as combat, which the early-music group — opening its 43rd season — explored via selections from Monteverdi’s seventh and eighth books of madrigals. “Tempro la cetra” introduced the conceit, its formality amplified by the light intricacy of tenor William Hite’s ornamentation and the instrumental emulation of Renaissance style: lean bowing (from violinists Daniel Stepner and Asako Takeuchi, violist Anne Black, cellist Loretta O’Sullivan, and Anne Trout on violone), gracefully relaxed plucking (from Peter Sykes, on harpsichord, and Catherine Liddell, on theorbo and guitar).
Hite and tenor Frank Kelley realized variations on the theme with appropriate musical arms: back-and-forth volleys of romantic recruitment in “Se vittorie sì belle”; protestations of devotion catapulted up, then raining down in “Ah, che non si conviene”; the friction of close harmony — a thin musical line between love and hate — in “Interrotte speranza.” (The ensemble offered cease-fires: a Passacalio and a Sonata by Monteverdi’s contemporary Biagio Marini.)
“Lamento della ninfa” accentuated the theatricality, a trio (Hite, Kelley, and Stepner, taking a vocal turn) creating a play-by-play frame around soprano Dominique Labelle’s heartbroken shepherdess. But “Lettera amorosa” — Labelle accompanied by Liddell’s theorbo — best exemplified Monteverdi’s flair for leveraging musical virtues: As Labelle went from steely vocal brightness to a fine, controlled intimacy, the love letter of the title became a concurrent present-day ritual of vulnerability and poise.
A Sonata from Dario Castello’s “Sonate concertante” — the players superbly balancing panache and vigor — led to a near-operatic finale: “Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda.” The crusader Tancredi (Hite), in love with Clorinda, a Muslim warrior (Labelle), fights her, too late realizes her true identity, then baptizes her before she expires (the plot, and its attending morals, related by Kelley, as the others engaged in some light staging). The action movie/Sunday school lesson prompted a lavish display of Monteverdi’s dramatic expertise: quick-cut rhythms and harmonies, the score unleashing its effects with suddenness and force.
Still, it was two people in formalwear pantomiming a duel while a third narrated against a backdrop of polished, learned sound. Maybe that’s the point: the story’s horror taking a back seat to the artistry of the telling. In performance, skill and ingenuity can mitigate implacable hatred and violence. In the real world — if only, if only.
“Monteverdi’s Warring Lovers”
Aston Magna; Daniel Stepner, artistic director
At: Slosberg Music Center, Brandeis University, Thursday (repeats Friday at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, and Saturday at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, Great Barrington)Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.