This post has nothing to do with viols, though Richard Mills used them in the last opera I saw of his, “Batavia”. For those interested only in viols, it’s best to turn away now.

This is not a review, merely a messy, personal response, not the ‘first draft of history’ as poor newspaper journalists are paid to create. I say “poor” because it’s a devilish job trying to assess something as complex as an opera on first hearing. Momentarily as I took in this opera – and how many operas do we go to without having listened to them or watched them on DVD before attending? – I kept wondering which aria or arias would go down in history, since it’s always the music which seems to last and not the libretto.

I’ve read the ‘official’ reviews of the opera as published in newspapers. I’ve also seen Mills’ iconoclastic call on television for more funding for opera, as wonderfully brazen as the sports industry asking the government for more money. Love it! I’ve seen interviews with the two female vocalists for whom the toll of performing such roles as the two sisters in Nightingale is so heavy. Opera singing is surely a vocation, a calling, not for mere mortals who want to live normal lives. I took in Virginia Trioli’s forum on television debating a new National Arts Policy for the country, with an appearance by Adrian Colette. Reviewing the reviews is what you’re supposed to do if you go to the opera. Opera is always such hard work. It means buying the CDs or DVDs and reading as much as possible beforehand. It means consulting the Form Guide of the singers, so you know which singer is likely to bring what quality to the production. There is also the nap in the afternoon beforehand (hell if you are coming straight from work), an additional dose of vitamin pills since the night will be long. I don’t take a packed lunch as I’ve known others to do attending the pre-concert recital or pre-concert talk). It means arriving at the Opera House at 6.45, taking in the harbour at sunset before the first bell, a limbering up meditation of sorts, and carefully organising the timing of reaching one’s seat depending on how far you are into the row. Patrons persist in entering by the wrong door but like those who no longer clap at the opera (perhaps their arms are too weak), I no longer stand to let other patrons pass by. I acknowledge the patrons sitting beside me with a polite “Good evening” but I’ve learned it never does to engage with other patrons – that way disaster lies, with wide gulfs of social background and personal politics far too close to the surface. Clothes are never a problem because you will see everything from black tie to shorts-and-sandals. I am a mess for 24 hours after the performance, best for lying down in a darkened room. A day at work after an opera is a day lost completely.

Opera and Occupy Sydney

A funny thing happened on the way to this opera. Invariably an opera performance mimics or mirrors the Sydney around me at the time. Walking through Martin Place, we almost tripped over a loose assembly of people, some sitting in consciousness-raising circles, outside the Reserve Bank of Australia. Occupy Sydney has not lost its momentum. There were no placards or signs; they were being surveilled by a single police car parked nearby, complete with four police, in case the RBA building might be stormed by the people on a balmy Saturday night. I recognised myself in the people sitting in circles, engaged in consciousness-raising. As a young person, a lifetime away, I attended marches along George Street demonstrating for the rights of women and Aborigines. Seeing what women have become and what they’ve done with feminism since makes me regret my marching. Very deeply.

But on the 1%/99% divide. Nightingale might be about myth, but it’s about reality. For many, the 1%/99% is a myth in Australia, a mirage borrowed from Occupy Wall Street or the Spanish ‘indignados’ but its manifestation is as real as Mills’ opera within the Australian opera industry or the broader Australian arts community. There is a very heavy irony in the fact that opera is entertainment for the 1% and that the 99% have The Slap, currently on television, to look forward to. Love of The Nightingale and The Slap are incredibly close in subject matter, despite the former being set up as myth and the latter as a ‘real’ depiction of John Howard’s Australia. The Slap would certainly identify with the public relations spiel put out about Nightingale: “Where does violence come from? Why women? When will the voices of victims be heard?” Everyone who takes The Slap seriously will.

I love the serendipity of the Greekness of Nightingale and Slap. Fascinating that our Australian stories are trapped like amber in the Greek experience. Those of us with fractious Macdeonians in our local neighbourhood – the sort who refuse to attend their children’s wedddings when they marry, God forbid, a Greek – identify with Mills’ Thracians. We have heard the ‘rough music’ on Saturday mornings when a traditional wedding is in the offing. A sound which is disappearing as the neighbourhood gentrifies and barbarians are at the gates: sunglassed Skip mothers with toddlers, sunglassed fathers with 4WDs.

Mills says he doesn’t provide answers to the Great Questions. Participants in Occupy Sydney and Occupy Melbourne have no answers; they further confused and confound the media commentators (themselves belonging to the 1% with fashionable North Shore addresses and salaries which contradict their earnest on-camera grimaces) by saying they had no clear agenda. In this world of social media, where everyone is shouting out their own personal messages, to not have an agenda is almost immoral. In shouting, we’ve forgotten how to listen. In being silent, we’ve forgotten how to talk. I’m not sure about Mills resolving his questions by resorting to a vocalise in the final moments of the opera, which metamorphoses into a recorded nightingale. Such a transformation reminded me instantly of Respighi. It verged (for me) on the glib to resort to Nature and the natural, the very same force which human beings were trying to overcome through ‘civilisation’, the base insticints which all the characters in the opera were seeking to rise above. But to end the opera ‘properly’ in the myth context, Mills had few options.

Of course the ‘answer’ to the question in literature is Candide’s weary homecoming to ‘cultivate his garden’. I shouldn’t be so surprised Mills provides no answers because I find no answers either in the battle of gender politics interpretations in Art that I’ve personally been confronted by lately: Anna Banti’s portrayal of Artemisia Gentileschi (the narrator caught up in the Fascist bombing of Florence while she wrestles with her principal artist-character) and all the Artemisia Gentileschi literature that attends it. The Anna Banti literature website where the word “rape” is spelled “rxxx” in order to align it to that other four-letter word. More recently, Driss Chraibi’s novel about women in Morocco (“La civilisation, ma mere!”) – the education sentimentale as the ignorant heroine comes to grip with the geniet in the radio talking to her, going to the movies for the first time, leaving the house for the first time, working things out with her husband who, through an arranged marriage, took her at age thirteen.  Woman as colonised country; male politics performed on the female body. There are no answers in any of these works of story-telling. After my mandatory opera nap yesterday afternoon, I caught snatches of a tv documentary on Singer and Sargent and their depictions of the music hall chanteuses. The age of consent then was thirteen. And don’t get me started on Degas and the hideousness of middle-aged men preying on student ballerinas. We jump up and down about other countries abusing women, but we were doing it ourselves only yesterday.

Myth as subject matter

I’m not sure about the power of telling the myth. Certainly one feels the gravity of the Greek tragedy in the opening scene of the two sisters. I thought Mills treatment of the silence/noise, silence/music dichotomy quite brilliant, tailor-made as it is for music. Just as Anni Banti’s narrator as novelist who has lost her manuscript in the midst of war is forced to re-tell the story, battered as she is by the ‘voice’ in her mind of the artist-character. I like very much the portrayal of the Athenian steretotypical woman as chatty and loquacious, the essence of the character, Philomele: the constant bane of men that women talk about their feelings and emotions.  Tereseus curiously adopts the non-male position at one point of wanting his wife to talk to him, which seemed independent of his having fallen up the spell of Aphrodite, a godly character on a stage. In re-telling the plot here, I’m struck by that same thin tiredness that I associate with early 20th century French drama portraying Greek myths. I liked the play-within-a-play of Act 1 (because it was another twist-and-turn in telling the backstory – and Mills has so much backstory to tell it almost fights against the music and loses) because it reminded me of 18thcentury France: the audience being educated as Monsieur Jourdain is in the Moliere farce, the preoccupation of French composers and dramatists with re-creating Ancient Greek in order to appease their patron Louis XIV. The Love of the Nightingale translates as L’Amour du Rossignol and I’m reminded of nightingales in musical literature: was Francois Couperin aware of the myth? What of Respighi? I’m coming to grips with the French chanson 16th-century Je suis desheritee, which in its second part, talks of the nightingale.

I’m broke, because I lost my friend. He left me, now I’m alone, full of tears and sorrow. Nightingale in the woods go immediately and tell my friend that I’m tormented for his sake. (Trans. by Dick Wursten)

Was it the soundbyte-conditioned part of me to look for key phrases in the libretto, those lines which would go down in opera history? I liked very much the business of keeping quiet and getting on with one’s lot in life. I thought the chorus of Thracian women not helping Procne very interesting. What’s the phrase? “Before women call each other sister, they’ve called each other a lot of other names beforehand.” Women both support each other in the opera and distrust and work against each other. There’s a strong contrast between the two sisters and the reception the first gets from the Thracian women. Silencing the Other. Nothing is clear cut. I thought for an instant that the words “Consume, Obey, Die” – words from the political street poster – were going to be thrown up by the yellow subtitles above our heads. Certainly “Who can resist power?” was excellent – for men it’s irresistible, can’t get enough of it; for women, it’s impossible to fight against. Was the diatribe about power – about rape in city carparks (Anita Cobby was suggested to me) among others – too obvious and explicit at the opera’s end?

A final note on the myth. Audience members behind me mumbled, at the close of the performance as they rose from their seats,  that “it was only a myth”. I’d like to think they were in denial about the relevance of the subject matter to real life and we letting each other off the hook by feeling they could dismiss the whole experience as a fable. I wonder how corporate heavies, those who support opera financially, will come to grips with this opera. Is some subversion, on the side, tolerated? Is Occupy Wall Street or St Paul’s Cathedral tolerated till the northern Winter drives them off the streets?

The Music

Musically the most thrilling moments were at the end. I was prepared for ‘better’ music in the second Act, based on the musical journey provided by Batavia. Not that it’s not engaging throughout, it is. Again, the difficulty of trying to assess music on a single first hearing! I have no idea how Emma Matthews was able to pace herself right until the end with her highest and loudest notes saved till then. I thought the passage near the end of the stuttering vocals, a Monterverdian in gola sound, brilliant in its portrayal of horror and suffering. Reviewers have talked about the maritime quality. Plainly the sea and wind are important to Mills. The staggering horrific spectacle of watching Batavia unfold in the Sydney Opera House was that the set, a giant ship, projected ominously forward at one stage, taking in the borrowed environment, the sails of the Opera House building. We were all in the ship or a ship operating on so many levels. And for many of us the 2009 production of Peter Grimes is still front-of-mind, and before that, Billy Budd – with which the moving floating stages of Nightingale has in common. An opera operates in the context of others performed in the same space and with others with similar themes.


On the question of rape. Yes, I was surprised to receive in the mail a notification to subscribers of rape depicted in Batavia.  It felt like a legal notice. Everyone has an eye to the lawyers like we’ve never done in the past. Mothers have to send in a pack of lawyers to vet the outdoor children’s playground these days. But more to the point, of course watching a depiction of rape performed by human beings is a world away from film violence or television violence. Depiction of violence is all the more interesting currently with television exposure of Northern Territory cattle being shipped to Indonesian abbatoirs compared to the reverse flow of Afghan refugees taking boats with people smugglers to Christmas Island. The Slap is a depiction of rape by any other name and it’s interesting that Mills takes up the issue of violence towards children, of children as pawns in adult gender politics. The newspaper reviews of the opera seem to gloss over the fact that a child was even on stage. We deny ourselves discussion and depiction of violence and rape, just as we silence ourselves on child violence and, for example, paedophilia – something committed in 80% of cases by heterosexuals, most often within the Family Unit (I notice it’s moving from the Nuclear Family Unit, with its connotations of fission and about-to-explode, to Natural Family Unit – where domestic violence, violence against children, rape, etc.  – are all portrayed as ‘natural’, practically ordained by God and certainly sanctioned by the three major religions of the world as something walled up, silent, inside faith, hope and charity).

It’s very regrettable that corporate Australia will probably not witness many of the four Sydney performances of Nightingale; this narrative of myth has been tucked away behind 19th-century opera warhorses where the gender politics is made less obvious (but nevertheless just as present). The 1% will have subsidised and patronised the vehicle by which Nightingale is allowed to sing. Ultimately, though it’s important that these Australian stories are told. I bite my tongue when I hear of colleagues of mine who won’t and haven’t read the Christos Tsiolkas novel but will rely on the television version. Some find it too earnest and over-acted, without perhaps realising how visceral family life outside the Anglo-Saxon majority can be. Moreover, because they are Working Australians they won’t be at home to see the television drama unfold on consecutive Thursday nights, but will rely on a pirated DVD version instead. This may or may not be deferred till ‘whenever’ – they caught the buzz over the water cooler at work, but may never get around to watching it. So I’m not optimistic about either the Nightingale or The Slap messages ‘cutting through’. At $1m/hour, The Slap doesnt’ come cheap; neither does mounting a performance of Nightingale.  

The newspapers reviews, readily available here on the Internet, discuss the plot and who sang in what role. I liked the Narcissus pose of Hippolytus; I liked the regal presence and choreography of Taryn Fiebig as Aphrodite, whose decolletage looked not like she wearing her dress back to front but echoed those multi-mammaried statues of Minoan Crete. Emma Matthews reprised a lot of the super-human energy we saw in La Somnabula. The presence of the child recalled Madama Butterfly.

Reviews elsewhere have commented on individual singers’ performances. What I found very positive was the overall balance between all the singers, reinforcing the action.

A great operatic experience, an opera of our times and for all time.


When I first saw this production a few years ago, I failed to understand it. Miserably. Everything seemed to be played for laughs and the audience responded inappropriately at the most poignant moments – the humour seemed cruel and misplaced, serious arias struck down by laughter, anachronisms coming across as undermining and tawdry. Though I did find the Velasquez/Goya/Rembrandt decor absorbing. Confusion and delay, as the Fat Controller would say, set in big time.

That production allowed to me to continue to set this and similar (influenced also by the Sellars Cosi, for example) apart from the ‘great’ Magic Flute and the Don, for which I have all the time in the world. I was brought around rather more by the recent Cosi, with its brilliant costuming for Henry Choo and Shane Lowrencev, for example – both of whom I find electrifying. Later, I came upon the Netrebko/Harnoncourt on SBS TV, my constant source of new operatic repertoire, and immediately identified with the black-and-white Strindberg decor, the strange doppelganger angel and of course the mesmerising Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, Anna Netrebko et al. Order was restored, Figaro maintaining its third position at my Mozart starting line. Whenever I need a dose of fine singing and absorbing choreography/set design, I draw on an Act or two from the Deutsche Grammophon DVD.

Having witnessed Figaro on Wednesday night, and thinking of nothing else since – life is always a blur for a few days and nights after going to OA performances -, I read in this weekend’s newspaper yet another attack on opera in this country, while every politician is asked about their team’s potential at the football finals, while every media commentator has their eye on the Commonwealth Games. The distribution of State money between various art forms aside, opera still represents a common meeting ground for excellence in a range of Australian arts – singing, instrumental music, theatre, acting, design, new media. But I digress. Another key contextual element for me was the electrifying workshop performance at Macquarie University of postgrad drama students running through several scenarios from commedia dell’arte, as part of that university’s Open Day. It takes a lot for me to travel across town on a Saturday to witness a mere thirty minutes of art; the whole thing, done by public transport, took up half a day. And the overriding memory was of the crouching Arlecchino before a Pantalone, with his nose high in the air, disdainful and cruel, a fawning Arlecchino, nursing a bite on his arm. I’m hoping for strong partecipation at a series of lectures on Italian theatre organising by the Sydney Dante Alighieri Society in the coming month, which naturally will include commedia dell’arte. Outside performances of Goldoni, I can probably only count on one hand the number of time live commedia dell’arte has been seen in Sydney in the last forty years. It seems to have been, and remains, the stuff of postgraduate students of Italian, more read about than experienced.

Along with this pained Arlecchino, I’ve been pining for another dose of Anthony Warlow in Pirates of Penzance since seeing the master at work in Little Night Music. There is nothing like this man’s comic timing – it is the most scintillating, shimmering experience to behold. Words almost fail me. Every actor in town should be drinking in this man’s comic timing.

This long-winded contextualisation brings me to Kanen Breen, another whose comic skills are breathtaking, completely absorbing at the time and long after the stuff of reminiscence. I have consciously gone through the 2011 production lineup of OA, with pen hovering over my subscription application, noting just those performances in which Mr Breen will appear.

There was a striking transparency in the overture. The orchestral playing was light, furtive and searching; you could see through the flesh to the skeleton. And what happened over the next three hours was an incredible sensitivity to the orchestral playing. Of course the action on stage detracts a lot from focussing on the orchestra, but I was forever being drawn to moments in the Requiem, to the Don, to Magic Flute, to all manner of other Mozart by the harmonic progressions, by the orchestral light-and-shade, by the harmonic torture underpinning those moments of supreme drama on the stage. It takes a very special orchestral performance to throw one’s ears in these other directions momentarily. It’s not just a simple recognition game – this orchestral performance knits Figaro tightly into the Mozart oeuvre; opera informing as well as being entertaining. Similarly the fortepiano’s fine work in the recits – the collaboration with the singers was enormously special. If only because the use of a piano here is leading us on to the post-Mozartian world of accompanied song. The orchestra’s contribution was so great I would have loved to have attended a repeat performance just to study them more carefully, to note more carefully those arias using the clarinet. What critics of opera don’t get is that OA performances are ‘too much’, they present audiences with just so much to take in that a single viewing is never enough. I come away exultant, but having just connected with 30 or 40 or 60% of what happened. 

By late September, Teddy Tahu Rhodes, Taryn Fiebig, Warwick Fyfe, Peter Coleman-Wright and Sian Pendry were substituted by others, so I’m not going to dwell on what would have been.

Jose Carbo was an absolute delight and I never tire of hearing him; watching him makes me feel like I am inside European Opera, I feel I am in Europe watching a ‘real’ opera singer. I don’t want to get into a discussion about Autralian opera and local traditions and perspectives – I go to modern Australian operas and support living composers – but there is something to be said for a singer who can so credibly honour the tradition of opera the way Carbo seems to. He demonstrated this in Barber and similarly conveys this power in Boheme and others. Like Warlow, his timing is impeccable; like Breen, his ability to match choreography with vocal statement is breath-taking. He has none of the woodenness that characterisation of the Count is prone to, that strident hubris born of his position; Carbo manages to retain, despite those stark moments of unmitigated fury, that flexibility which makes the potential forgiveness, and its actuality, credible.

I was utterly transfixed by the look and sound of Rachelle Durkin as Countess Almaviva. Her physical appearance extraordinary and as was her ability to communicate the different aspects of the character – the opening aria of hers alone in her single-bed room, her interaction with Cherubino, not to mention confronting the whip-bearing Count. The febrile exhaustion might have come across as ludicrous but she walks that fine line between stock-character comic and the truly harried. We have to be drawn into her plight, identifying completely with her struggle, and Durkin does that very very convincingly. 

Kanen Breen I’ve already mentioned and what I admire most about his performances is his ability to be not just memorable but to so actively elucidate character and plumb new depths in vocal explication of might otherwise be an insubstantial stock character or minor presence. He never upstages or hogs the limelight; his ensemble work is brilliant and the voice is to die for. His comic genius doesn’t set the music-master apart from the rest of the cast, it points up his participation in the struggle between men and women – he’s not “immune” from that contest. Ultimately, too, Breen’s contribution to the role in Act III is important as a fabricator – he ‘orchestrates’ the play-within-the-play, the ‘performance’ of the marriage proceedings. Which brings us to Armfield’s mastery in constantly defusing the veering towards tragedy and ‘realism’ by reminding us that this is ‘just’ a play. Breen’s physical man-handling of the cast into position is magnified by the lighting effects, both the photographic flash as well as the spotlight on the Count – so all power to the lighting designer, Rory Dempster. 

Jacqueline Dark in a similar way to Breen elucidates her Marcellina in new and exciting ways. Prima la parola has mentioned the finger-pointing at the conductor/Mozart and her allowing to be asked to return to the stage for a ‘song’. This is not just Armfield shedding new light on the work through comic gesture, though through such gestures Armfield ‘lifts’ this production beyond the norm, beyond the anticipated and the routine. These gestures allow for more intense audience interaction which gives the singers confidence which has a run-on effect on their portrayal of character through voice. So Dark’s interpretation of Marcellina in Act 1 seems to blossom and shed new light on the interaction with Susanna. The interaction between the women is crucial to a convincing portrayal of the struggle between the men and the women in this piece. I’m reading Banti’s “Artemisia” at the moment and the heroine’s interaction with other women is as telling as her struggles with men.

Part of me is still in shock-and-awe after Armfield’s Peter Grimes and while the Netrebko/Harnoncourt Salzburg means a lot to me, with its framing of relationships in the mode of ‘serious’, I am mightily impressed by the enormous depths plumbed in this production in the direction of the comic, by the polish gesture seems to bring to operas like this, by the degree to which the ‘look’ – whether it be Durkin pushing out her fragile long arms or Breen curling his fingers about his arms in disdain – can impact on the vibrancy and confidence of the vocal experience.

While resting after work on two major musicology essays at the moment, one on Galician cantigas di amigo and the other on Johannes Ciconia, I’m looking at more practical music-making in the form of vielle / Fidel / Fiedel, in my case tuned the same as a treble viol and played gamba-wise rather than at the shoulder. The more I hear from recorded performances, the more I realise how virtuosic this music is, which may explain why a medieval scribe notated them so underpinning their survival down to our own time.

What follows is today’s rather haphazard findings on CDs and the internet. This is in marked contrast to my analyzing performances on LPO/CD/YouTube of Ciconia secular music in far greater detail and with more rigour! Having come across today some performances of dance music which are in fact too fast to dance to, I’ll probably backtrack somewhat and find something slower to get my teeth into.

Yesterday I was honoured to attend Opera Australia’s launch of its OzOpera production, Sound Garden. What impressed me, among many other fascinating aspects of the production, was the use of the West African djembe drum. It was great to see a professional percussionist, Tim Brigden, in action and the experience added to my humble understanding of drumming in medieval music; drums are used to accompany the vielle solos in the recordings mentioned below.


Parlamento (Palamentro), anon. istampitta – BM MS Add 29987

Source is the British Library London, Add. 29987, fol.60-60v (1/0) and a facs has been published by the American Institute of Musicology in 1965 by Gilbert Reaney, “The Manuscript London, British Museum Add. 29987” (Musicological Studies and Documents 13). I’m also aware of an edition by Jan ten Bokum, De Dansen (Utrecht, 1976), pp.49-50. The full citation is “De dansen van het Trecento. Critische uitgave de instrumentale dansen uit hs. London BM add.29987, Utrecht Institut voor Muziekwetenschap, 1967. Scripta Musicologica Ultrajectina I. I think my modern edition comes from the Norton Anthology of Western Music, vol.1, ed. Claude V Palisca, Yale Univ, W W Norton, 1980, pp.40-42: set out in bass clef, with five puncti or sections, each with an aperto and chiusso endings (the equivalent of our first and second time repeats). Apparently it’s discussed by Frederick Crane in Early Music 7(1979): 24-33: On performing the “Lo estampies”.

The Ensemble Unicorn CD recording (Naxos), Chominciamento di gioia: Virtuoso dance-music from the time of Boccaccio’s Decamerone, in fact is a recording of all thirteen instrumental pieces in the BM manuscript, i.e. eight titled istampitta, four saltarello and a trotto. In terms of dating, they appear alongside madrigals c.1390, all the more interesting for someone like me looking at Johannes Ciconia (Rome, Pavia, Padua, Venice approx 1390-1410).

For the record, here is a list of the pieces in the manuscript: Lamento di Tristano and La Manfredina (both slow/solemn), each followed by a Rotta (quick variations); trotto and saltarelli 1-4 (dance music, with simpler and jauntier structure than the istanpitte); the programmatic instanpitte – Parlamento (Talk), Tre fontane (Three Springs), Ghaetta (the cheerful woman), In pro (Please), Prinicipio di virtu (Principle of Virtue), Isabella and Chominciamento di gioia (Beginning of Joy). 

When it comes to recordings, there are three early ones in addition to the above-mentioned Ensemble Unicorn’s:

1. Medieval English Carols and Italian Dances. New York Pro Musica, dir Noah Greenberg, American Decca 79148.

2. Recordings to accompany A History of Western Music and Norton Anthology of Western Music (compiled from other recordings), dir Thomas Binkley, David Munrow and Denis Stevens.

3. Estampie, Instrumentalmusik des Mittelalters. Early Music Studio, Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, dir Binkley. 1974; EMI-Reflexe IC 063-30-122 (GER)/IC 163-119/24 (GER). Recorded 1962.

I’m also aware of a more modern recording: Instrumental Music from the 14th century Italy. Sinfonye, Glossa GCD920701 (which also includes Tre Fontane, Principio di Virtu, La Manfredina etc. and which seems to complement their other CD devoted to medieval instrumental music, Dance in the Garden of Mirth). The internet site devoted to the Silk Road has a mp3 recording.

More on this piece anon! I’m interested to eventually find out more about the instruments modern instrumentalists are employing, as well as accompaniment for the soloist and the tempi.

Trotto – BM MS Add 29987

On the Dufay Collective recording, A Dance in the Garden of Mirth, their track 8 has it teamed up with a Saltarello from the same mansucript source, as mentioned above. It appears to be played on solo vielle by Giles Lewin, with additional drone strings; it seems to be an ‘extended mix’, the whole thing repeated several times. The approach is obviously strongly rhythmic dance music and the following Saltarello deploys the same instrumental forces with the addition of big bass drum accompaniment.

 Chominciamento di gioia / The Beginning of Joy – BM MS Add 29987

There are references in the literary texts Decameron and Il Solazzo to istampitte or estampie being played in front of guests, but in neither case do the guests arise to dance. This appears to point to the form evolving into absolute music, for the purposes of listening rather than dancing.

Ensemble Unicorn has a recorder playing the first punctus/parti, followed with strings and drum accompaniment. The tempo is tempestuous; there are trills on the cadences. It moves straight into Saltarello No.4 and the whole of this track lasts 7mins 23secs. Another recording by them as posted on YouTube has an even faster tempo, too fast for anyone to actually dance, but sounds great!

The Newberry Consort record this on their Il Solazzo album, track 4 (6:27) for vielles and lute. Obviously a more intimate sound.

See for a version on high recorder and drum, on the debut album Canconcier (CD, 56:15, 27 Apr 2009). They also play In seculum viellatoris and the third and sixth Estampies Royales, amongst others.

See the discussion by Jeremy Noble, Early Music Dance (Performing early music on record 5), Early Music 1976(4): 355-360.

This Chominciamento di gioia is obviously popular for medieval ensembles venturing into recording. See The Dufay Collective, Medieval Dance Music, A L’Estampida. Avie Av0015. Inter alia Danse real, English Dance, 6th 4th and 7th estampies reals, Lamento di Tristano, La rotta, etc.





In his journal article devoted to Purcell, Ted Conner discusses the vocal works at hand when Purcell was composing his fantasias in the summer of 1680(1).  He gives examples from the Fantasias of the contrapuntal techniques discussed by Playford in his Skill of Musick, the twelfth edition of which Purcell agreed to edit in 1694. Conner then goes on to discuss rhetorical expression in Purcell, drawing heavily on Mace’s observations about fugue, form and humour in music of the period.

Of particular relevance to Dido and Aeneas is his discussion of key areas, suspension and chromaticism and the importance to Purcell of the key areas of Dminor and Gminor in depicting death and redemption. Conner quotes Curtis Price’s suggestion that Purcell nearly always links death to Gminor. The expression quality of Dminor figures strongly in Purcell also. While Conner explores all this with the Fantasia no.9, I recall the attention given to amateur choral singers quickly and correctly recognising key in the recent Orpheus Music choral course devoted to the opera. We know Act III ends in the great lament and chorus in Gminor. Not surprisingly, this is preceded at the commencement of Act III by the sailors and chorus singing in the relative two-flat key of B-flat major. Similarly the Sorceress and Witches’ Dance are also in B-flat. The final stand-off between Dido and Aeneas is largely all in Gmin, culminating in the Chorus, ‘Great minds against themselves conspire’, starting in B-flat but moving to Dmaj then Dmin to Gmin leading straight into Didos’ final recit.

This Act III recit of Dido becomes a repeated ground bass after bar 8. It is an abbreviated variation of the Dido aria right at the beginning of Act I, the ground bass here being in Cmin, with a move to Gmin in its centre to highlight the strongest emotions, at “I languish till my grief is known”. This episode in Gmin in Act I is relatively short-lived, with Belinda and the Second Woman singing in Cmin, leading straight into the Chorus, also in Cmin, “When monarchs unite”.

The ground bass is also discussed by Conner with regarding to the descending minor tetrachord. He quotes ‘When I am laid in earth’, but also Purcell’s other use of it, both in Fantasia no.9 and in his elegy composed for John Playford.  Conner goes on to examine the expression of redemption via the rising fourth motive and the diminished fourth motive. Certainly when Dido and Aeneas face off in Act III the frequent references to Heaven and Fate are expressed with rising fourths.

Belinda’s aria opening Act II Scene 2 , ‘Thanks to these lonesome vales’, is in Dminor, as is the echoing chorus which follows and the Second Woman’s aria which follows that. Dido’s Women’s Dance is also in Dminor but the storm which breaks heralds ‘Haste haste town” in Dmaj. While Act I Scene 1 starts in Cmin and ends in Cmaj, Act II Scene 2 moves from Dmin or Dmaj; Act II Scene 1 starts in Fmin and ends in Fmaj.

Ted Conner, Musical-Rhetorical Gestures in the Fantasias of Henry Purcell, in Journal of the Viola da Gamba Society of America, vol.39, 2002, pp.5-49.

Henry Purcell, Dido & Aeneas: vocal score. Ed. Edward Dent and Ellen Harris. OUP, 1987.

I’ve just returned home from a splendid week in the countryside, learning to sing from scratch the Chorus parts of Dido & Aeneas, culminating in a public performance on the final afternoon. Soloists were picked from the participants, numbering 50 or so in total. Experienced singers opted for an additional session devoted to the madrigal from Monteverdi’s Book IV, Ohime!. All started the day with Bach chorales and one, Jesu bleibet Meine Freude, was memorised and sung after the Monteverdi to form the warm-up for the opera. Fortuitously, the singers were accompanied in the Purcell by not just a harpsichord, but a string band (two violins, viola and cello) in the final performance. The drive and support offered by the two tutors, Tobias Cole and Katie Cole, were impeccable in every respect. 

I’d say almost of the choruses were in ‘good working order’ by about Tuesday (we started on Sunday), with Wednesday through Friday used by soloists to master their rhythmic challenges while the Chorus got their segues right, there being barely a bar separating recit or aria from choral entry, as well as their opening notes.

I’ll write more extensively about the Choruses, divided into Easy, Tricky and Difficult. Plainly the course was an extension of last year’s, which was devoted to Schutz’ Magnificat, and I believe some Monteverdi as well. My commentary will be a mix of what I’ve learned from a singing perspective combined with observations of a more musicological character. 


What I walked away with personally, in terms of Top 10 Things, might probably be summarised as follows. For me, it’s about drawing parallels between the science of singing and the science of playing the viol, against the backdrop of me as artist/musician.

1. Divest yourself of your Australianness. If you are serious about Western Art Music, carry yourself in as European a manner as possible. Cultivate a European’s natural sense of tactus and ‘readiness’. In Europe, there is no slouching, no slurring, no complacency. Comport yourself as a European. Walk and sit like one and you’ll start singing (and playing viol) like one. No successful Australian viol player I know comes across as ‘Australian’; they come across as ‘European’. This goes to the heart of who you are as an Artist and Musician, a Musical Being (as in the ‘sentient being’ spoken of by Buddhists, a being which feels – ergo, here, a being who creates art and a being who is musical). This also goes to the heart of how much we internalise our social conditioning about the dualities associated with music – amateur/professional, singer/instrumentalist. Transcend these identifiers, rise above them.

2. Cultivate the harmonics, nasal resonance, go for those vowels, lose the consonants. Use your voice as you bow that viol. Don’t squeak or be timid on the viol. ‘Strike’ the viol for its full resonance, eke out as much as possible from each bowstroke. This is about the body, the physical body of the singer (everything from the diaphragm up to the eyes) with parallels to the instrument of the instrumentalist. This is about projecting yourself as Artist/Musician to the world. Do you want to whisper to yourself in a scratchy tone or say something significant to the Whole Room? Use the full length of the bow. Consonants will provide meaning but not character; vowels alone produce character and poise.

3. Attack properly. Don’t warm up the engine from the start of the note, hit that note from the start. Parallels with chiff and viol bowing are obvious. Articulate on the viol as you would a baroque violin. Viol music is not wishy-washy, vague or indistinct.

4. Think pendulum, see the arc of the phrase, the trajectory of the line, while being thoroughly aware of that fast-beating tactus as a foundation. See the whole picture, from the beginning of the piece to the end, from the first rehearsal to the final encore, from birth to death and all in between. Use the full length of the bow.

5. It’s not about staying in tune (though that helps), but playing in time. Viol music cannot be played as a single line of music alone; it stands or falls on the ability to cooperate, be a teamplayer. You can have your own identity and know yourself, but you have to eventually become an Artist-in-Society, a tenor in a choir and treble viol in a consort. You have a responsibility to articulate the intentions of the Composer. Music is tactus is timing. Tuning is what we as humans bring to the music, with all our faults.

6. Have as much solid ‘prep’ in the voice whether you are singing low or high – “stay the same” whether singing the bottom note in an octave leap as the top. Don’t be attentive only on the high notes or high points; be equally attentive to the low notes and low points. Equanimity and equal qi or chi or force or energy in all things. Play all notes at all times on the fingerboard with equal intensity and interest. Don’t assume that everything in the high register or tessitura is more interesting and has to be played with more focus than the low notes.

7. Come ‘over the top’ when singing or humming notes high in your register. Don’t come ‘from underneath’ them. Go for it. Life is not a rehearsal. Every note is different.

8. Having spent years playing bass viol in bass clef, I found I could look at a bass line and ‘know’ it instantly. Regrettably I can’t sing much lower than a G, so for this workshop I opted for the high tenor – though I find the E-flats, Fs, F-sharps and Gs difficult (we sang at A415). Not at all being used to ‘filler’ tenor parts, pushing the harmonic direction with quirky leaps here and there, I was faced with an enormous challenge. If I’d played viola or a tenor viol all my life, things might have been easier. Ergo, one works with what one has. With the voice one has, the viol one has, with what life has given us. But in the heat of the moment, difficult notes can be sung. Struggling with Purcell’s Fs, I would always find it possible to sing the wonderful F-sharp-high G-low-G sequence in Act III (see later notes). You can pull rabbits out of the hat as a viol player, no matter how inferior the instrument or how small your fingers!

9. Memorising is the magic of music.

10. Learn through movement. You’ll learn faster by moving, by dancing, by singing fast music slow and slow music fast. As an instrumentalist, I kept wanting to bow every sung note – standing or sitting still felt abnormal.

I drove eight hours north to get there. And another eight hours back. Given Tobias Cole is singing Monteverdi’s Vespers with the Oriana Singers in Canberra later this year, I might drive the three hours south to attend. I’m sure it will be worth it.

Orpheus Music Choral Course, 3-8 January 2010 Armidale NSW Australia;  Henry Purcell, Dido and Aeneas.  


Cavalli – L’Ormindo (3)

October 29, 2009

For copyright reasons, the Naxos anthology of arias and recits is unavailable in this country, but Sergio Vartolo provides worthwhile information on the Naxos Direct website, as follows:

* Manuscript score and libretto held at the Biblioteca Marciana, Venice.  Enquiring minds need to know!
Favola Regia per musica, by Giovanni Faustini, first performed at the Teatro San Cassiano, Venice, 1644.

Harmony, who performs the Prologue / Ormindo, Hariadano’s long-lost son / Amida, prince of Tremisene / Nerillo, Amida’s page / (In disguise) Sicle, princess of Susio [Scotland]; Melide, her lady-inwaiting; Erice, her nurse / Erisbe, wife of Hariadeno / Mirinda, her confidante / Hariadeno, king of Morocco and Fez / Destiny / Cupid / Fortune / The Winds / Osman, Hariadeno’s captain / Guard of the arsenal at Ansa / Messenger / Chorus of Ormindo’s soldiers / Chorus of Amida’s soldiers / Chorus of Mauritanian soldiers / Chorus of Erisbe’s ladies-in-waiting

In Act One we meet Ormindo, a Mauritanian warrior in love with Erisbe, and his fellow soldier Amida, who also loves her. Erisbe is still young, but is married to the elderly Hariadeno, king of Morocco. The two men agree to present themselves in turn to Erisbe and leave her to make her choice. She is delighted by their declarations but unable to choose between them. The two suitors take their leave of Erisbe. The page Nerillo laments the fact that love makes fools of men. Enter Sicle, dressed in gipsy clothes, in search of her lover, Amida, and accompanied by her nurse, Erice. They offer to read Nerillo’s palm. Erisbe meanwhile is bemoaning her fate as the wife of an old man who can only offer her ‘insipid kisses’ (‘sciapiti baci’). Her lady-in-waiting Mirinda declares ‘truly it is not right/to join golden tresses to silver locks’ (‘[non] si conviene in vero/congiunger treccia d’oro a crin d’argento’). The act closes with Destiny’s order to Cupid to reunite Amida and Sicle.
Act Two opens with a love scene between Amida and Erisbe. Still disguised, Sicle, Erice and Melide appear and offer to tell their fortunes, before reading first Amida’s and then Erisbe’s palm. Erice convinces Amida to meet her in a cave where she will carry out a magical fortune-telling ceremony. Meanwhile Ormindo announces that he is leaving, having received a letter from his mother asking for his help to fight the king of Algeria who is besieging Tunis. Erisbe decides to run away with him. Fortune then commands the Winds to turn back the ships of the fleeing lovers.
At the beginning of Act Three, Sicle, Melide and Erice prepare the cave for the magic rites promised to Amida, with the intention of revealing their true identity to him. During the ceremony, Sicle appears before Amida and exhorts him to touch her to see that she is real, and not a spirit. The two are reconciled. In the meantime, Hariadeno has commanded his captain Osman to follow Erisbe and Ormindo. A messenger arrives, bearing the news that they have been captured. In a faltering voice, the king declares that they are to be poisoned. Osman is charged with the task of killing them but Mirinda promises to marry him if he replaces the poison with a sleeping draught. Ormindo and Erisbe drink the potion and feel themselves gradually being overtaken by sleep. Hariadeno then receives a letter which reveals that Ormindo is his long-lost son, and is filled with remorse, until Osman reveals that he only gave them a sleeping potion. The two lovers awake and Ormindo begs his father’s forgiveness [12]. Final duet between Ormindo and Erisbe.

Vartolo draws an analogy between this sort of plot line and tv soaps of our own day. He talks too about moving away from the madrigal, which we link immediately to Monteverdi and Venetian music of the period, but this part-music was on the way out to be replaced by duets and engaging more with the visual of sets and costumes.

Cavalli – L’Ormindo (2)

October 29, 2009

So, some six weeks out. I’m considering my options since I try to attend operas prepared. There is much to be said for entering the house in innocence, without knowledge, but there is much too to be said for being aware of the music in order to focus on the staging and choreography and lighting, and in the case of Pinchgut, on the conducting and orchestral colour.

It’s not listed in my Boyden’s Rough Guide to Opera, which lists Giasone and Calisto. But it offers, of course, much by way of clues. Certainly with 1644 we are pre-Lully and English is in civil war; we are post-Monteverdi but not by much. Cavalli was born when Monteverdi was already 35; Cavalli got Ormindo going five years into his tenure with the ocal Venetian Teatro San Cassiano opera company. The form seems to have been highly volatile at the time, but Cavalli was responsible for creating an accessible, repeatable formulia for it.

I’m anticipating something along the lines of Poppea, since it was composed just a year before Ormindo, in Monteverdi’s last year. Forever etched in my memory is be the Opera Australia production of Poppea with the tragic Virtu falling from step to step down the monstrous giant red staircase, and brazen Cupid, and the death of Seneca, the searing final duet. Most of the action in L’Ormindo is likely to be expressed in recitative, since it wasn’t for another five years, in Giasone, that Cavalli clearly separated recit from aria, thereafter the form becoming synonymous with arias with a capital “A”.  Boyden illuminates more connections with Poppea; the opening Sinfonia has been attributed to him.

If it’s a collaboration with Faustini, then I can expect comic and tragic elements, noble lovers caught in complex emotional entanglements, permitting a wide range of emotion. Sounds already liek the Love Triangle publicity!

I’ve long tried to make sense of CD of mine entitled Lamenti Barrocchi Vol.2 with music by Monteverdi, Rossi, Strozzi and the usual suspects. They come across as opaque – like so much early music, it requires live performance or at least a lot of visual cues. Better still to be playing it oneself. These laments prepare me somewhat for the arioso I’m likely to come across in Ormindo, halfway between recit and aria. The Lamenti Barrochi has come in handy since there’s a link between this Naxos recording by Sergio Vartolo and a compilation of Cavalli arias. I should listen more carefully since Bettina Hoffman is on viola da gamba, she of the interesting CD of the complete Ganassi.

So to sum up, I’m looking to a night basically at the theatre (all the clarity of meaning that goes with that) with music supporting text, just at that point in the history of opera when music is about to assert itself (for ever more!) as the dominant partner.

Lamenti Barrochi Vol.2. Sergio Vartolo and the Soloists of the Cappella Muiscale di San Petronio. Naxos, Early Music series, DDD 8.553319.

Matthew Boyden, The Rough Guide to Opera. 4th edition.London: Penguin, 2007.